Motivation to Learn in Flatter Organisations

During a discussion with the Procurement Director of a large corporate last week she was exploring the impact of flatter organisational structures on career development and learning for her team.  The elimination of layers in the organisational hierarchy has reduced her ability to offer her team members promotion through a series of more senior roles.  She asked: “How do I motivate young people to learn when I cannot offer them career progression?”

At first this seems like a tricky question to answer.  However, the question can readily be flipped around to become an answer.  A key motivator for people (young or otherwise) to be lifelong learners is the lack of predetermined career paths as a result of a range of changes including less hierarchical organisation structures.  The lack of clear career progression within a department in an organisation makes it more important than ever for people to continuously learn.

One of the key reasons for people to upskill used to be to compete for promotion in their current organisation.  However, forces such as an increasingly competitive global business environment and digital disruption have resulted not only in fewer layers in organisational hierarchies, but new structures including networks and temporary teams.

The employment relationship is also shifting, with an increasing number of people working in the ‘gig’ economy on temporary contracts or as freelancers (2016 studies in the United States, European Union and Australia estimated 20-30% of the labour force are freelancing either full time or part time.)  Both the changes to organisation structures and the gig economy mean that work is being organised more on a project or task-by-task basis rather than people having a consistent job role.

Where people continue to work in permanent job roles they change jobs more frequently– the average job tenure in Australia is now three years and four months.  This trend is not restricted to people early in their career.  Australians aged 45 and over typically stay in the same job for an average of 6 years and 8 months, compared with 10 years in 1975.

Even if someone were to remain in the same job for an extended period, advances in technology and automation mean that the nature of the work in that job will change.  A McKinsey study released in January 2017 showed that automation using current technology will change the daily activities in all jobs to varying degrees.  With ongoing technological developments this impact will grow.

The four key shifts described above are:

  • Flatter, more networked organisational structures
  • More temporary work engagements
  • More frequent changes in job role
  • Advances in technology changing daily work activities

These shifts make the career path of any individual more fluid than ever before and make it imperative to take charge of their own learning.  In this environment it’s critical for people to learn continuously to stay abreast of change, keep their knowledge and skills current, remain competitive, create new opportunities, and reinvent themselves.

The content of this post is based on my preparation for an upcoming keynote speech I am giving at a professional development conference on the theme of ‘Be Future Ready.’  Enquiries regarding event speaking can be directed to me via LinkedIn or 

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