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continuous learning

What is continuous learning?

Continuous learning is the ongoing expansion of knowledge and skill sets. In the context of professional development in the workplace, it's about developing new skills and knowledge, while also reinforcing what has been previously learned.

The definition of continuous learning is broad -- it can be formal or informal and structured or unstructured in nature. Activities can include taking a formal course, observing more experienced employees, asking for assistance with an unfamiliar topic, exploring new and alternative work methods, studying, having casual conversations and practicing the use of a skill.

Daily habits and practices form the foundation of continuous learning. This type of learning works through any means of knowledge intake and can continue as lifelong learning.

Continuous learning initiatives in the workplace have the potential to increase employee engagement, job satisfaction and knowledge retention. To stay competitive, organizations must continually adapt to changing social and economic environments. Because an organization's success depends on its people, it's important for employee skill sets to evolve to meet the demands of the business climate. Continuous learning is one way to do that.

Principles of continuous learning

In traditional employee training, the level of employee knowledge rises to a peak right after a specific training course or event and then gradually falls off over time from a lack of reinforcement. In continuous learning, employees retain knowledge at a higher level because they participate in multiple learning events that reinforce one another.

The premise of continuous learning in the workplace is for employees to retain knowledge and skills over time. Employees attain higher levels of knowledge and retain that knowledge longer with reinforcement activities.

Some key elements are required to create a continuous learning environment. They include the following:

  • Readily accessible learning opportunities for whenever the need arises.
  • Continuous opportunities for learners to apply their knowledge and test their new skills.
  • A culture that fosters learning with sustainable practices that can be repeated successfully.
  • Collaboration opportunities so learners share knowledge and perspectives.
  • Regular feedback mechanisms from both instructors and students.
Chart contrasting continuous learning with traditional learning
Continuous learning means consistently improving upon existing knowledge and skill sets, whereas traditional learning is considered finished at some point.

Benefits of continuous learning

Continuous learning in the workplace has the potential to expand employee skills, increase skill and knowledge retention, generate new ideas and perspectives, boost morale and raise overall employee performance.

For individual employees, continuous learning provides multiple benefits, including the following:

  • Helps them achieve career development goals.
  • Lets them obtain or update professional licenses or certifications.
  • Encourages them to explore new opportunities and perspectives in their work and personal development.
  • Enables them to develop marketable professional skills through upskilling and reskilling.

For the organization, continuous learning has another set of benefits, including the following:

  • Contributes to achieving organizational goals.
  • Encourages a forward-thinking innovation culture.
  • Makes employees feel valued.
  • Keeps costs down, because it's less expensive to invest in the ongoing development of current employees than to train new employees.

Enhances competitiveness as employees become more skilled and productive.

Continuous Learning modeling

Deloitte's Continuous Learning Model features the following considerations:

  • Learners' needs fall into three different categories, according to the Deloitte approach:
    • Immediate. Learning that's needed to be successful today.
    • Intermediate. Learning that's needed to expand skill sets and grow in current positions.
    • Transitional. Learning that's needed to reach long-term organizational goals, advance up the career ladder or make a career switch.
  • Paradigms are the different ways employees learn. They consist of the following:
    • Education. This is traditional learning and development often done in classrooms or e-learning experiences. This type of learning is typically trackable and has a clearly defined beginning and end.
    • Experience. This is learning through workplace events such as special projects, job rotations and stretch assignments.
    • Exposure. This is learning through social relationships and interactions.
    • Environment. This involves the tools and systems that support employee learning in the workplace.

Continuous learning strategies

Strategies that apply continuous learning techniques include the following:

  • Structured learning. These are formal learning methods that are preorganized for specific goals and purposes. They include school courses, online learning courses, workshops, seminars, webinars, conferences and employee and managerial training programs.
  • Social learning. This involves the ways people learn through interacting and observing others. It can be formal or informal, in person or over virtual mediums. Social learning includes discussion, coworking, collaborative problem-solving, mentoring and on-the-job training.
  • Self-directed learning. These are independently administered measures that employees can use to expand their skills and knowledge. This type of learning can occur sporadically, or it can follow a structured schedule. It includes research, reading, experimentation and practice testing.

How to build a continuous learning strategy

A continuous learning strategy begins with business leadership or those tasked with training employees developing long-term goals for their continuous learning plans. Then, a learning infrastructure is implemented that includes various courses and tools to achieve those goals.

Organizations must create a supportive continuous learning environment, because employees focused on meeting their immediate work deadlines might be hesitant to pick up new learning opportunities. Business leaders can take the following actions to encourage continuous learning:

  • Start with a plan. Show employees that the organization is investing effort and resources into continuous learning by mapping out a course of action. This should include where learning plans are administered, such as for the individual employee, teams, departments and the whole organization. There should be a dialogue between management and employees to clarify objectives and priorities.
  • Leadership. A continuous learning culture starts from the top. That's why it's important for management to communicate their full support for these activities.
  • Sustainability. Provide ongoing resources to support and maintain a continuous learning culture.

Building a culture of continuous learning

Once the scope of a continuous learning strategy has been determined and a plan devised, the following steps will ensure employees are able to take full advantage of it in their work environment:

  • Flexibility when implementing learning plans. Flexibility is key to accommodating as many employees as possible and ensuring their participation. Flexible approaches include allotting sufficient time to complete assignments that account for people's busy schedules and personal lives. Another example would be easily accessible forums or discussion boards for collaboration and interaction among learners who live far apart.
  • Useful technology tools and resources. Learning management systems (LMS) tools are particularly useful for cohort learning that helps train or educate multiple employees at the same time. Systems that enable virtual and hybrid learning are also useful.
  • Collaborative and collective learning efforts. LMSes have capabilities that foster collaboration and interactive assignments with features like forums and gamification. When learners engage in fun activities and interactions, they are more likely to retain what they're learning.

Continuous learning for artificial intelligence and machine learning

The concept of continuous learning applies to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) systems. Ongoing learning is a key part of these systems. ML systems use algorithms to learn to analyze data on their own. Algorithms help them distinguish important insights and learn what predictions they can make from that information.

In a static learning process, once an ML algorithm is trained on a specific data set, it assumes every future data set it analyzes to be similar. However, the world and knowledge aren't static. Therefore, in the same way humans must be retrained and reskilled through continuous learning, ML systems also undergo continuous training as part of the ML operations process.

An ML model is deployed once, and then continuously monitored and retrained to adapt to constantly changing data. There are different techniques and tools that developers in this field use to automate this retraining process.

The continuous learning process for ML requires periodic oversight from a human developer. There are also drawbacks to this type of retraining, because it requires expensive technology infrastructures and is a time-consuming process. However, the ongoing learning process is important to ensure the efficiency of AI and ML systems.

A newer, AI-driven approach to teaching employees new skill sets is the learning experience platform. Find out what it is, how it works and how it differs from traditional LMSes.

This was last updated in November 2023

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