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Are You Ready to Become Obsolete? What I've Learned About Continuous Reinvention

04/13/2015 10:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

SAP just released some interesting new global research conducted by Oxford Economics which shows that the number one issue we face as employees is obsolescence of our own skills. Here's the data:

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Fig 1: Oxford Economics - SAP 2014 Talent Research

Note that red circle in the upper right: half these professionals believe the skills they have will NOT be what they need in the next three years. So we have a three-year "half-life" for our own skills.

Skills Obsolescence Hits Everyone

We all have to take this seriously. I started working in 1978 and had to totally reinvent myself many times. How do you do it?

First, let me give you some examples:

Software engineering: New tools like Hack or Swift, R, and Hadoop didn't even exist five years ago. If you were a Cobol programmer in the 1980s, you've had to evolve or you suddenly find someone right out of college applying for your job. I remember the "data processing" professionals from my days at IBM, and while many of them were fantastic software engineers, today most of their skills would be out of date. (If you were a database engineer who focused on Ingres or Informix, for example, you had to totally adapt.)

Marketing: Today if you don't know Salesforce, Marketo, Hubspot, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Analytics, Pinterest, and Facebook you really don't know how to market your company anymore. Digital presence, social media, persona analysis, and analytics are now core to all marketing professionals.

Engineering: If you work in product design, you have to understand micro-engineering, robotics, software, and the ever-increasing role of mobile, gigahertz RF products, and battery technology.

Sales: If you aren't up on mobile tools, CRM, and general technology trends you may not even know what to sell and how to position it.

Teaching and education: What role should technology play? How do I use new tools in the classroom? Does flipped learning work? Lots and lots of new ideas hit this industry every year.

HR: Yikes! There are so many new issues for HR people today (technology, globalization, Millennials, engagement, retention, social learning, social recruiting) I won't even try to list them all.

So the issue in our careers today is not "what do you know" but "how fast do you learn?"

One of the most important skills I have found in leaders and candidates is what is often called "learning agility." Learning Agility, a term coined by psychologists, simply describes your ability to rapidly learn new things.

How Do You Continuously Reinvent Yourself?

Suppose you are one of these people who thinks you're going to replenish half your skills in the next three years. How do you do it? Here is what I've learned:

Read as much as you can.

Today tools like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and the web in general are rapidly becoming curated reading systems. If you subscribe to the people and topics you like, you will start to see articles and news on your industry which will rapidly bring you "into the market" and help you see what is going on and what you need to learn.

I am a voracious reader. I read everything I get my hands on: The New York Times (Sunday), WSJ, Economist, HBR, and every HR magazine out there. I have an e-reader device and I buy books almost every week or two, often for only $10 -- just to keep up on topics I feel are important. I don't read every word of every piece, but I read enough to keep me comfortable that I'm current. And I take notes on the device and try to put my references into Evernote or another tool to keep track.

Get to know experts around you.

There are lots and lots of gurus around you -- and they usually love to share what they know. I, for one, am always willing to talk with people who want to pick my brain on some part of HR or technology. I was just at a meeting last week and sat at lunch with a guru in recruitment technology -- once I asked her a few questions she just opened up and educated me about a many new sourcing tools and technologies I had never heard of.

Take an expert to coffee and just ask questions. Every company is filled with senior engineers, sales people, managers, and functional leaders who would love to talk with you. Take them to coffee and just ask them to fill you in. Not only will they help you understand your own domain, but even more importantly they will give you the "big picture" about what's going on in your space. The problem we often have in career planning is not understanding the detailed skills we need, but rather the big "transformations" coming. (I remember well when marketing was focused on field events, mailing flyers, and calling people on the phone. Today CRM, email marketing, social networking, and SEO have transformed the profession.)

Take time to play around with new stuff.

We all have things in our professions that are new -- new tools, new approaches, new models, new technologies. Today you can often download or try them for free. Do it! I've been "playing around" with Pinterest for years and that helped me understand it. I cannot tell you how many HR tools I've played with and now I can relatively easily understand what they do and where they fit.

Play around with new solutions as well. If you're reading and staying up in your market, you'll see other companies doing your job in new ways. Try what they're doing at your place -- it might work. One of the most important pieces of career advice I give people is "watch for the changes around you." Your job or profession may be undergoing rapid change, and you may not see it.

Think about the medical profession. I met with a robotics expert and discovered that the field of surgery is likely to become highly automated within the next five years. If you're a doctor and not keeping up with robotic surgery, you may find yourself without a career in 10 years. In fact, "robotics" is coming to every field we work in -- so rather than worry about, just learn about the new automation tools coming and use them.

Go to industry conferences.

As much as they often wear you out, industry conferences are among the most important transformational learning experiences you can find. A good industry conference brings together thought leaders, experts, great practitioners, and vendors all in one place. In only a few days you can listen to presentations, meet experts, and visit vendors. I recommend that every professional attend at least one major industry conference in their domain every year. It is well worth the time, believe me. (And many are now streamed online for free.)

Take courses. Yes real ones.

Sometimes we all need a real "refresher" on a topic, and that may require taking time to attend a real course (online or in person). For example, about ten years into my career I took a three day course on large account selling. That course stuck with me for the rest of my life. The principles I learned there are enduring strategies I would never have learned on my own.

In my case I also realized several years ago that I needed to learn more about modern web technologies. So I signed up for a Lynda.com account and have learned all about HTML 5, Google Adwords and Analytics, and advanced statistics. Did I really need all that detail? Maybe or maybe not - but I now feel more comfortable with the whole domain.

Today with so many MOOCs and online courses available, you can take great courses for $200 or less, and if you just put the time in you'll suddenly find yourself "re-energized" with new stuff to try.

Teach others.

The best way to really learn something is to try to teach it to others. Not only will teaching force you to come to grips with what you know, it will also force you to organize your skills and put them into a form others can use. In that process you will suddenly understand your tacit knowledge (all the things you know but never formally learned) and all the places you have gaps.

Many agile organizations (the US Military, for example) force people to teach as part of their professional development. I have never taught a workshop or even given a speech where someone didn't ask me a question that helped me learn even more.

Visit YouTube and Ted.

If you really want to have fun, start poking around on YouTube and Ted in your industry. You will find hundreds of videos by world experts (and some very fun people) showing off what they know. These typically don't qualify as "courses" or "education" but you will suddenly realize how much you "don't know" about your own domain.

I always tell our analysts that it typically takes two years to fully "grok" a new topic (Does anyone read Stranger in a Strange Land anymore?). This is not because there isn't a lot to read - it's because in every domain there are multiple points of view. For everyone who thinks the next big programming language is Perl, there is someone who argues that Java is taking over the world. These debates and educational discussions are what make you "relevant" and give you "context" in your profession.

Ask for developmental projects.

Ask your boss or employer to let you try new things. Maybe you're interested in advanced analytics but you work in marketing programs. Tell your boss you want to spend two days a week doing an analytics project on the reach and effectiveness of your programs. He or she may not want you to stop doing what you're doing, but with a little discussion you can probably convince him that this little "project" may save the company a lot of money over the long run.

If you're a software engineer and you really want to try a new search algorithm, a new UI design, or a new functional approach ask your boss to give you an assignment to try it out. Managers are often so busy with their own jobs they may not even see the opportunity to try something new. You can teach yourself something new and bring innovation to your company at the same time.

Learn to think expansively. Look for the "Big Picture."

I had a long talk about this issue with one of the SAP executives at dinner this week. What I told her was that my experience shows that one of the most important skills in "learning agility" is your ability to "see the big picture."

Imagine if someone asked you "what do you believe is the most important trend happening in your profession over the next three years?" What would you say? I get this question all the time - so I have taught myself to see the big picture.

In most cases you may say "well, hmm, I really don't know." That is your incentive to get to work. Get out there and read, learn, talk to people, go to conferences, and figure out where your job and profession is going. And then get on that bandwagon to get there first.

Change jobs.

And finally, perhaps the scariest of all - sometimes you have to pick up and leave the place you work. There are many organizations which become unable to offer you the opportunity to do what you want to do next. While we all want to be loyal to our employers, sometimes we have to jump off the cliff and try something new. I encourage everyone to shop around and interview regularly, just to see how other companies may be "reinventing" the work you do at your current employer.

In my case, I was always scared to death to change jobs - but every transition turned out to be a good thing (with the exception of one). I went from Exxon to IBM to Sybase to a startup, to DigitalThink to being laid off. That propelled me to start my own business which brought me to where I am today. Every transition was frightening but gave me developmental experiences beyond my wildest dreams. (So if you ever are laid off, consider it a gift.)

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a headhunter I still know well - sometimes it's good to just "move to a fast growing company" because there, due to growth alone, you get a chance to expand your career. That motto certainly worked for me.
Yes we have to do our jobs, get our work done, and make our companies successful.

But as we do this, we must also continuously reinvent ourselves. CEOs and HR executives understand this issue more than ever, and more and more now understand that if they don't offer you continuous learning opportunities you will just leave.

Being a Professional

As professionals, we are expected to educate ourselves.

I evolved my career from mechanical engineer to project management to computer and technology sales to marketing and product management and later to industry analysis and executive management.

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It all happened over time and with a lot of scary "self-reinvention" in the process. Nobody told me what to learn, what jobs to take, or who to meet - but somehow along the way I just realized that "learning was good."

Take your own profession seriously. Rather than worry about change and hope your employer will train you, take development into your own hands. Not only will you have fun, but you'll find new career opportunities just appear.

As Stephen Covey described so eloquently in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, we all have to "sharpen the saw." Just as carpenters have to sharpen their tools every week, you need to sharpen your skills every year.

Get a little worried about becoming obsolete - it's actually good for you. It will push you to stay current, learn, and go out and meet people who can help you reinvent yourself every day.

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About the Author: Josh Bersin is the founder and Principal of Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP, a leading research and advisory firm focused on corporate leadership, talent, learning, and the intersection between work and life. Josh is a published author on Forbes, a LinkedIn Influencer, and has appeared on Bloomberg, NPR, and the Wall Street Journal, and speaks at industry conferences and to corporate HR departments around the world. You can contact Josh on twitter at@josh_bersin and follow him at http://www.linkedin.com/in/bersin . Josh's personal blog is at www.joshbersin.com .