Autodidacts in the Knowledge Economy

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Rise of Autodidacts in the Knowledge Economy

Rise of Autodidacts - by Rajiv Maheshwari - Human Capital
Rise of Autodidacts

This article examines the factors that have given rise to the autodidacts in the knowledge economy. This article was published in the July 2016 edition of the Human Capital magazine. More details on autodidacts are available at


Autodidacts – Driven By Curiosity

“The Child is the Father of the Man” famously remarked William Woodsworth more than two centuries ago. Let us allow ourselves the creative liberty and wish our “days bound each to each by natural curiosity” instead of natural piety.

We are often intrigued by the natural curiosity of children. The learning curve they exhibit during their formative years is a trainer’s dream come true. However, how often do we pause to ponder why the sparks of inquisitiveness have extinguished? What causes this “learned helplessness” in the field of learning itself? Is this caused by our faulty education system that was designed for the Industrial Revolution rather than the Information Revolution? Is this the result of years of corporate drudgery that dampens the yearning to learn in the quest of earning?

Questions to Autodidacts in a Knowledge Economy

Well, we may take refuge in escapist responses to the above questions and thwart the volley of questions that might follow. However, let us indulge ourselves in our helplessness and continue with some more questions in the context of the knowledge economy.

Why now?

Where do we start?

How can we make the change?

What lies ahead?


Why now?

We live in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) times that pose a unique challenge. Having worked in five service industries and witnessing the creation of intellectual property by our clients, I can see the tsunami of these disruptive forces at play.

The combination of information explosion, meteoric rise of computational resources and machines coming to life can only just begin to describe the outlines of our environment. However, let’s scratch the surface and see what is really going on.

Information Explosion:

The information explosion has resulted in far too many distractions and has contracted attention spans dramatically. The human race is now considered to be less attentive than a goldfish. One can quickly imagine the impairment of our learning abilities with our alleged attention spans of 8 seconds.

Computational Resources:

The rise of computational resources pose a much more fundamental problem. Let us go back to school for a minute (ok, for 8 seconds, if a minute is too long). How would you describe the study of mathematics? I am sure you would think about numbers, computation and other related concepts. However, Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it as the science of structure, order, and relation that has evolved from elemental practices of counting, measuring, and describing the shapes of objects.

Once again, if we extrapolate this evolution to any job or role, it should not take too long to realize that the erstwhile skills required in performing various roles have already been replaced or will soon be replaced by more efficient computational resources. You can also imagine why I am using the more abstract term, ‘computational resources’ rather than the more conventional computers or software. The nature of these computational resources will continue to evolve, if anything, at a faster clip. This is already leading to unprecedented pace of change in the competencies required.

Intelligent Machines:

At this point, some may argue that these changes largely relate to mechanical or manual tasks and not to knowledge workers. This may still be the prevailing theory in several discourses about the Future of Work, but machines have come to life and have increasingly powerful ‘brains’. While one can take solace in the number of unmet challenges, it will be imprudent to ignore the undercurrent.

In a nutshell, disruptive forces are changing the nature of work at break-neck speed and our work-forces somehow need to learn to evolve, both at an individual as well as at an aggregate level. Knowledge, skills and competencies need either a massive one-time refresh or periodic upgrades.


Where do we Start?

It is incumbent upon a leader of the knowledge workforce to appreciate and recognize the tectonic changes happening all around us. One-time or re-active responses will clearly not suffice and a cultural change is required. Organizations need to embrace and internalize a Learning Culture.

There is no cookbook for doing this and the solution themes are too varied and complex. However, as teams are able to see the woods instead of the trees, the patterns begin to emerge and the stage is set for the snowball effect of a Learning Organization. If you plan to dive straight in and lead by example, you couldn’t have made a better start.

How can we make the change?

There are myriad ways of transitioning to a sustainable Learning Culture. Let us cull out a few “action words” from some known practices

  • Institutionalize:

Institutionalize - Learning Culture - Rise of Autodidacts by Rajiv Maheshwari

Does you organization have a well-defined learning program? What is the importance that the top management assigns to this program – through words and through its actions? We have witnessed the massive impact of formalizing our learning efforts into a comprehensive learning program that has been lapped up across all levels.

  • Democratize:

Democratize - Learning Culture - Rise of Autodidacts by Rajiv Maheshwari

With institutions, come bureaucracy and hence the need to democratize. The volatility of the external environment needs an agile response. This can be achieved by democratizing the process of learning. The osmotic flows of knowledge and information are often more effective than top-down ivory tower based approaches.

  • Adapt:

The needs of today may not be the needs of tomorrow. Our natural child-like state of curiosity is a potent navigational tool in our adaptive journey.

  • Align:

Align - Learning Culture - Rise of Autodidacts by Rajiv Maheshwari

Is the learning program a standalone or ad-hoc initiative? Or, is there alignment between the performance management systems and the learning program? Is performance measured by more efficient replication of the past or is it measured on the scale of future relevance? Is the “Talent Management” thinking aligned with the performance management process?

  • Diversify:

Diversify - Learning Culture - Rise of Autodidacts by Rajiv Maheshwari

The concept of “Connect the Dots” evokes memories of Steve Jobs applying his calligraphic skills to create beautiful fonts for computers. Much of the hype around disruptive innovation today is not stemming from a classical invention but rather from applying the knowledge of one field to another. The by-product of a conscious approach towards cross-fertilization of knowledge can be surprising. Throw a bunch of people with diverse skills into a team and you will be surprised once; get people to acquire diverse skills and they will surprise you for a lifetime!

  • Digitize:

Digitize - Learning Culture - Rise of Autodidacts by Rajiv Maheshwari

Are you taking advantage of e-learning platforms? Are team members riding the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) revolution? If Ivy Leagues are lending their expertise and knowledge with your teams at your convenience, what is stopping you?

  • Gamify:

Gamify - Learning Culture - Rise of Autodidacts by Rajiv Maheshwari

Learning systems are increasingly relying upon gamification techniques and making the journey a lot of fun. Although, there will be few intrinsically motivated learners, the concepts of gamification can alter the learning experience.

  • Communicate:

Communicate - Learning Culture - Rise of Autodidacts by Rajiv Maheshwari

The burden of daily chores can potentially wear down the most passionate learners. There are three things you can do as a leader – Communicate, Communicate, Communicate and if you want a different set of C’s you can communicate using curated content consistently.


What lies ahead?

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future!

However, one can surmise that survival in the VUCA world will require not just sharpening the saw, but acquiring different tools. Making this change as dictated by circumstances may result in survival. However, the autodidacts will tread on a path of continuous and self-directed learning. The world will see the rise and rise of the autodidacts and the hegemony of learning organizations.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but then we are humans and do not have the luxury of nine lives!

Did You Know?

The initiatives taken by Anand and Anand in digital learning were “Highly Commended” in Financial Times’ Asia Pacific Innovative Lawyers 2016 and were the only initiatives taken by a firm headquartered in Asia to be recognized in Technology in the Report.

Also Read:

Series on Top 10 Words describing Innovation Trends. Top 10 trends in the above FT report uncovered using KnowBot, a robot using Natural Language Processing. Co-incidentally, KnowBot, is a result of my autodidactual application of learning in new areas.

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