The Case for Lifelong Learning

By: Phil Simon| - Leave a comment



In late June after a six-week respite, I returned to ASU to teach my capstone courses: analytics and system design. One year into my professorial career, I like to think that I’m starting to get my arms around the evolving relationship between academia and technology. In a nutshell, it’s a complicated one rife with nuances.

For starters, I don’t share the beliefs of anti-college zealot Peter Thiel. Still there’s plenty of support for the notion that one need not acquire a proper four-year degree in order to be successful. Famous examples of college dropouts such as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs aside, more and more companies are hiring in less-than-traditional manners. From a recent piece in the NY Times:

In the last two years, nearly a third of IBM’s new hires there and in a few other locations have not had four-year college degrees. IBM has jointly developed curriculums with the local community college, as well as one-year and two-year courses aligned with the company’s hiring needs. 

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty refers to as these as new-collar jobs and they may be critical in the future. Think of them as positions “somewhere in the middle between professional careers and trade work, meaning they combine technical skills with a knowledge base rooted in higher education.”

Successfully Navigating an Increasingly Uncertain World

To be sure, plenty of learning has always taken place outside of a proper classroom setting. I also consider myself a case in point: In the last two decades, I have taught myself Spanish, SQLVBA, web design, and other technologies not covered at Cornell’s ILR program. If I put on my swami hat, I see this trend only intensifying in the future.

I stress to my students that there’s less certainty than ever. Programming languages, methodologies, and tools will continue to evolve. Python, R, and Javascript may be scorching hot right now, but are you willing to be that they will remain that way indefinitely? I’m not.

Fortunately, those who want to sharpen their tools and acquire new ones have never had more resources at their disposal. Sure, many companies continue to offer their employees formal training programs and education reimbursement stipends. Don’t think for a minute, though, that you need your employer’s permission to affordably pick up new skills today. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many universities offer certificate programs. Beyond that, knock yourself out with countless courses on YouTube, Udemy, Coursera, Udacity, and Lynda (now part of LinkedIn/Microsoft). Sign up at Code Academy. Or just go buy a book and go to work.

Simon Says: In crisis, there is opportunity.

As the Chinese say, there is opportunity in crisis. For better or worse, few if any companies offer lifetime employment anymore—even in Japan. If you don’t embrace continuous learning, you may soon find yourself on the outside looking in. Those who refuse to adopt new skills may find that the world has passed them by.


About The Author

Phil Simon

Professor at ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business

Phil Simon is a frequent keynote speaker and recognized technology authority. He is the award-winning author of eight management books, most recently Analytics: The Agile Way. He consults organizations on matters related to communications, strategy, data, and technology. His contributions have been featured on The Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, Fox News, and... Read More