Governments of the future must rethink the way their employees learn

Creating the dynamic societies of the future demands forward-looking education programmes that teach key skills, and new ways to absorb and utilise knowledge

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 12 FEBRUARY 2019. Panel discussion on Workforce at the Milken Institute 2019 MENA Summit. Solveig Nicklos, Abu Dhabi School of Government. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: John Dennehy. Section: National.
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When I first moved to the UAE and visited the Abu Dhabi Corniche, the beautiful dhows in the waters of the Arabian Gulf reminded me of a model sailboat that my grandfather kept on his desk when I was a child, and that now sits on my own desk. I remembered how my grandfather worked in the same job for more than 40 years. I also recalled a picture of a classroom from his era and marvelled that not a great deal has changed since those days. Overall, classrooms then and classrooms now look almost the same.

And yet, today, we find ourselves in careers and industries that are very different. Technology has changed nearly every aspect of work. We shift industries and roles often, we are professionally and geographically mobile. So, why hasn’t the way we learn – even as adults – evolved to reflect this?

Abu Dhabi has embarked on a comprehensive investment program to accelerate the economic transformation of the emirate: Ghadan 21, or Tomorrow 21. This Dh50 billion programme, spanning 300 initiatives, is a massive effort by the leadership to make Abu Dhabi a globally competitive place to do business by 2021. To make that happen, we need to deliver a seismic shift in the professional development of some 60,000 government employees, across Abu Dhabi's public sector. It's a mission of huge significance to the nation and the future development of Abu Dhabi.

Learning is an essential part of the process, as these government employees deliver critical components of the leadership’s vision. At the Abu Dhabi School of Government (ADSG), we are taking the necessary steps to make the correct learning available. We need to make sure that those in key positions have the skills and knowledge required to drive this young nation towards the next phase of its development. It’s a momentous challenge, and the clock is ticking.

We want to encourage all government employees to be curious learners for life

We want to encourage all government employees to be curious learners for life. The ADSG programmes, combined with competency-based learning, will evolve the cultural and learning philosophy of all government employees. By doing so, we seek to change the thinking within their entities at the same time. This means providing training to help learners attain both technical and behavioural skills, and, importantly, to then deploy them to meet Abu Dhabi’s needs. Employees will not simply learn what to do, they will learn how to learn.

Yet, how do you ensure success when the landscape is so vast? Sixty thousand government employees have different and competing demands on their time. Their day jobs keep them fully engaged, and we need to make sure that different levels of the workforce are learning new skills in the right areas. Being able to assess where people need to upskill is a challenge alone. How will we measure our success?

What’s clear is that the old Victorian system of learning has come to an end. The typical, linear approach of current education systems has been repeated across continents for centuries. It’s served us well, but the dawn of change is already here, and generations to come will need to learn in a different way. The days where we sit in lectures memorising various texts are fading quickly.

We cannot create curious, knowledge-seeking learners without creating a new learning ecosystem, and digital technology is at the heart of this. Sixty-five percent of today’s students will work in jobs or careers that don’t exist yet. New technological formats such as AI, cryptography and fintech are all on the rise, and the UAE is seeking to play a role so that there is a sustainable economy fit for the future requirements of its citizens. We’ve seen a decrease in demand for roles where manual dexterity, endurance and precision are required, while behavioural skills are becoming more necessary. This includes analytical thinking, innovation, resilience, flexibility and complex problem solving.

Economies are changing fast as a result. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has arrived, and 85 per cent of job markets that will exist in 2030 have not yet been invented. Part of our role is to develop government employees who are able to design those markets, ensure that education prepares the workforce for those jobs and that the UAE leaps ahead as the region’s highest-performing economy. Countries all around us have their plans and are making their own investments to ready themselves for the challenges ahead. Competition will be fierce, but the UAE has a bold plan to beat that ticking clock.

Solveig Nicklos is dean of the Abu Dhabi School of Government