Learning how to learn

Liana Cafolla
Gianfranco Bonadies

In today’s technological world, it’s not about what you know but whether you can learn something new in the future. Liana Cafolla looks at how organizations are implementing a culture of curiosity and learning to keep themselves and their people relevant

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Liana Cafolla
Gianfranco Bonadies


Lifelong learning is no longer an optional tool for those who want to advance in their careers. Fast-paced technology developments have made learnability – the desire and ability to quickly grow and adapt your skill set to remain employable throughout your working life – a necessity. Those who want to keep their relevance, and perhaps their jobs, need to embrace it.

“We are now in an age where people who are not able to change the way they do business, or manage employees, almost every year or two will quickly become redundant,” says John Miers, Chairman of Black Isle Global, a consultancy specializing in leadership skills, organizational strategy and people development. “Employees who are learning all the time will be the ones who will be able to move to new jobs. Experience that is built on continuing to do the same task over the years, however brilliantly, will not be so important in the future.”

Adapting to those new challenges means a need for learning on an ongoing basis, however encouraging continuous learning is a challenge. Leaders in the accounting profession say that encouraging an employee mindset that constantly seeks and welcomes learning opportunities rather than ticking off a specific checklist of skills to learn is the most important part of building a learnability culture.


“In today’s digital environment, information is available at our fingertips, anytime, anywhere,” says Carmen Ting, Head of Talent, People, Performance and Culture at KPMG China. “Having knowledge about what’s relevant today does not always give us a competitive edge. What matters is the ability to learn new knowledge and skills relevant for now and for the future that could help us and our clients solve unfamiliar problems.” That’s not always an easy task, she adds. “The main challenge would be learning how to unlearn – forgetting about what we already know and being open-minded about new ideas. It’s not always easy for a professional to forget that they are an expert on a subject matter and create the appetite to learn more.”

Being motivated to learn is essential, says Cissy Chiu, Learning and Development Leader at Deloitte China. “With the market changing so rapidly, our people need to keep up with market changes. We need people to have the desire and motivation to learn, so when we talk about growth mindset or culture, that is the core foundation to build our skills and capability for the market.”

Clear benefits 

Increasingly, learning is needed just to do the current job in an adequate way. Audit practice, for example, has changed out of all recognition, says Agnes Chan, Managing Partner of Hong Kong and Macau at EY and a Hong Kong Institute of CPAs member. “In the past, I took a piece of A3 paper and made a list, and then ticked through the list. Now, it’s mobile-friendly – you can connect with colleagues and clients around the world. We call it digital audit methodology.”

Building a learning culture is more than simply encouraging people to add to their skills. It requires an understanding of the reality that in the digital age, there will always be more to learn and new ways to use that knowledge. A July 2018 article in Harvard Business Review, entitled Take control of your learning at work, argues that because information is available to everyone at the click of a button, what is now important to employers is finding people with the ability to learn the right expertise in the future, and then to keep doing it. The article says: “When we can all retrieve the same information, the key differentiator is not access to data, but the ability to make use of it; the capacity to translate the available information into useful knowledge.”

As a first step, leaders should clearly communicate with the management team about the advantages of implementing a learning culture, for example, how it helps organizations retain talent, and enables them to solve problems more efficiently. Employees need to recognize that mastering a single skill is no longer enough to maintain a lifelong career. Longer working lives, coupled with the rate of development of transformational technology, means that workers need to master several different skills.

“The challenge for companies is to create a learning culture where professionals take ownership of their own learning and make learning a habit.”

Owning your learning 

Learning itself has changed. In the past, learning was often structured and employers were typically the prime organizers of workplace learning – arranging courses to be held on-site at set times to teach specific skills or competencies over prolonged periods. Employees just needed to show up and pay attention.

But in order to keep up with today’s unceasing flow of technological changes, employees need to acquire new skills quickly, as well as largely own the learning process themselves. This might mean selecting a course to study and managing their learning on a multitude of online devices and in varying formats, including taking part in webinars, watching videos or playing educational games, as well as in a traditional classroom setting.

Many Hong Kong CPAs stop formal learning once they have graduated from the Institute’s Qualification Programme, relying on on-the-job training to build their careers, says KM Wong, Chairman of the Institute’s Professional Development Committee, but that’s a mistake, he says. “In fact, the latest accounting and reporting standards, new technology trends and certain soft skills require more than that. After obtaining a basic knowledge on a particular topic during face-to-face seminars, members can also go for in-depth learning in a workshop to learn from experts how to master the skills better,” he advises. He notes that the Institute, in the last financial year, offered members more than 500 e-learning events and over 300 face-to-face learning opportunities.

The Professional Development Committee is focusing on active learning in the place of traditional lectures and classwork, which particularly help members moving or looking to move into specialist areas outside of audit and accounting. “For example, the Financial Controllership Programme is developed to help our fellow CPAs working in the commercial field or non-governmental organizations to enhance their skills in managing people and mastering skills in various aspects,” he says. “During the course, participants will engage in role-playing, experience-sharing and active dialogue with others. We encourage participants to share cases in the class, apply what they just learned at work, and bring the results back to class for further enhancement.”

The challenge for companies is to create a learning culture where professionals take ownership of their own learning and make learning a habit, says Monica Sung, Director of Learning and Development, PwC Hong Kong. “It’s really going to be critical to our firm going forward,” she says. “The speed of change is not going to stop.”

Learning is a learned behaviour, which is good news for employers and employees. Employees can be encouraged on their learning journey by recognizing that expertise is not due to innate skills. “Many studies have confirmed that it is not intelligence that creates expertise but effort and practice – that is, hard work,” says a McKinsey report. “Such studies show that intelligence can be developed and that there are no limitations on what we can learn throughout our lives. Indeed, the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use, and learning prompts neurons in the brain to make new connections.”

To own their own learning, employees need to set goals for their learning, and assess their progress regularly. To start, employees can assess their current knowledge and identify where the gaps are. McKinsey suggests that people should ask themselves the question, “How can I ensure that I’m more valuable at the end of a year than I was at the beginning?”


Learning from the giants 

Google is a recognized leader when it comes building a learning culture in the digital world. Google’s “Googler-to-Googler” (G2G) training programme advocates peer-to-peer learning. It was created to allow employees working in different fields to give each other first-hand expert knowledge. Eighty percent of the company’s training is handled through G2G. The programme has been widely recognized for promoting a strong learning culture by giving staff an opportunity to grow through on-the-job training, allowing them to give back by training other employees, and showing that the company trusts its employees to be smart, capable, motivated and able to build the company’s learning culture.

Laszlo Bock, Google’s former senior vice president of people, writes in his book Work Rules that experts who have mastered a skill learn in a particular way. “They shard their activities into tiny actions and repeat them relentlessly. Each time, they observe what happens, make minor – almost imperceptible – adjustments, and improve.”

For employees wishing to own their learning process, this kind of learning entails reducing your work into bite-size parts and establishing the good habits needed to master each one. For example, the healthy habits of an effective public speaker would include advance preparation, spending time on presentation design, the use of positive body language and then asking for specific feedback after the presentation.

Learning that combines a mix of approaches is increasingly preferred to traditional one-size-fits-all approaches. Law firm Baker McKenzie explains it has been putting this into practice. “We recently designed and delivered a five-week course on effective business partnering and structured problem-solving skills to 60 internal business professionals,” says Steven Ng, the firm’s Asia Pacific Head of Leadership and Learning. “The blended learning approach included some pre-work, live virtual classroom learning and breakout discussions, a Harvard Business Review case study project, offline coaching sessions and a final presentation project for each team to tie all the concepts together.”

The firm is keen to build both digital skills and non-digital soft skills, he explains. “We use legal tech to discharge our work and our lawyers are trained to use them effectively to deliver better value. We are also mindful of the difference between digital skills and skills in a digital age. Skills and knowledge are more useful when acquired and applied in context, so we focus on developing […] mindset, communication skills and the ability to learn to help our lawyers provide better client service and deepen client relationships. Example of some of these skills are business problem-solving, being trusted advisors, commerciality and industry knowledge, deepening client relationships and having more strategic client conversations.”

 Learning and the profession 

Within the Big Four, learning and development leaders are implementing a variety of best practices from across industries in building their own learning cultures. They also find that using a mix of tools is best as it allows their people to have easy, anytime access to resources and have fun while learning.

At Moore, a medium-sized practice, the emphasis is on learning delivered in person and apprenticeships. “Audit is a people business. No matter how advanced the artificial intelligence (AI) technology is, professional judgements exercised by human brains are unlikely to be imitated or substituted. So, in this digital age, we are still a believer and a follower of the old-school apprenticeship,” says Helen Tang, the firm’s Managing Director and an Institute member. “While my technical/training department delivers training on core audit skills including computer-aided audit tools, we have a buddy system in place where a more experienced audit manager is paired up with an audit staff member to share with him or her their practical or personal audit experience and even some soft skills that may be useful inside or outside the firm.”

The most effective learning requires a mix of methods, says PwC’s Sung. Last year, the firm launched an informal online learning app called Vantage that combines trusted outside resources and internal resources. “It is like a learning equivalent of Spotify where people can create their own playlist or subscribe to playlists created by others, search for topics that they want to learn more of, filter their search results in accordance with their learning preferences, e.g. forms of learning and duration of learning,” explains Sung.

“The best reward for a learner is when you realize that all the effort you’ve put into learning about a subject has empowered you to be able to teach back.”

PwC’s Digithon programme was designed as a three-month learning project to digitally upskill everyone in the firm to at least have a basic understanding of four key topics: AI, cloud computing, blockchain and cybersecurity. The programme aimed to motivate professionals to learn these topics, have fun learning, and be rewarded. It was a competition-based programme, she says. “We were trying to at least create some excitement around it, so people could pick up the habit of learning every day.”

Sung was very happy with the results. “We had 100 percent participation – every single person in the firm across Mainland China and Hong Kong was a member of a team and we found that team morale really improved. Some people were really passionate and keen to learn; they then coached other team members to do well in the mini games,” she explains.

Despite the progress, she says the firm hasn’t cracked the learning culture yet. “The main challenge [to building a learning culture] is that our people are very busy, so it’s about making and taking time to learn.”

KPMG encourages employees with all levels of expertise to learn from each other by encouraging the “design thinking” way of exploring possible solutions. “The design thinking approach allows everyone in the room to share their ideas openly, such that we can learn from each other,” explains Ting at KPMG. “Not only does this help build a learning culture, it actually enables us to come up with solutions we might never have imagined.”

Employees are also encouraged to learn from each other. “We encourage everyone to seek 360-degree mentoring – such as learning about a new app from your team, seeking feedback from cross-functional team members.” Employees who excel at teaching others are recognized annually. “The best reward for a learner is when you realize that all the effort you’ve put into learning about a subject has empowered you to be able to teach back. We have a very comprehensive programme to empower our colleagues to learn to be a facilitator of a subject matter, and the best facilitators are nominated for recognition and rewarded every year.”


It’s a strategy that can help spread the learning culture, she says. “Create first-hand experience for your stakeholders to enjoy the benefit of learning or better yet, the benefit of helping others learn. They will then be your best advocates in championing a strong learning culture on a day-to-day basis.”

At EY, a special focus is on building regulatory excellence. “We have a very strong team on technical and regulatory,” Chan says. “This team constantly provides updates to our people. Our secret is our willingness to invest in regulatory expertise.”

The firm also has a mix of internal and external training programmes. It has licenses with several large external learning programmes, which the firm’s employees can access anytime and anywhere, covering topics from data science and finance accounting, to insights from business leaders and professional development courses. In addition, learning resources from prestigious institutions are open to partners in a mix of overseas and virtual learning, including the Harvard Leadership Programme and Stanford Innovation Programme.

At Deloitte, as with other firms, building a learning culture is proving difficult. The main challenge is building a firm-wide appetite to learn, Chiu says. “Not everyone is willing to learn. Some are very transactional – they may not have the desire to learn.”

Chiu and her team are using a multi-pronged approach to overcome the hurdles. Last year, Deloitte launched its “4+1” culture programme focusing on innovation, inclusion, courage, well-being and integrity. “It needs to be embedded in everything we do,” says Chiu. “We use mobile apps and online games, but for key messages it has to be face-to-face because we want the participants to discuss and have the skills practice,” she explains.

Deloitte has also developed small nuggets of short, easy-to-learn information on particular industries that can be watched and read quickly on a mobile phone while employees are, for example, in a taxi on the way to meet the client. “For example, our auditors may go out and do a stock take for a particular industry that they don’t have experience in,” Chiu says. “They need to have access to those [learning] resources through mobile resources that can be accessed anytime, anywhere.”

The firm often uses a combination of learning tools, she explains, such as when helping employees identify what kind of worker they are. “We have developed something called Business Chemistry – what type are you, what type am I? It’s a little bit like those psychometric tests that assess your personality. The model is delivered through virtual methods – some videos, some e-learning articles on the four types. Then, when they come into the classroom, we will talk about how to apply Business Chemistry types to work – who are you? Can you guess your client’s type? Can you guess your colleague’s type? And, if they are a different type to you, how do you work with them? So in the classroom with in-person learning, we will focus on the skills practice, and then we follow up with virtual resources.”

“A positive mindset is actually key,” Chiu says. “Not just classroom learning, though that can be useful. The importance is the culture – everyday on-the-job awareness, mentorship and leadership.”

How to own your learning 

McKinsey recommends four key steps to take charge of your own development.

1. Set goals for learning, and meet them 

Start by examining your current knowledge and areas of expertise, and identify the skills or knowledge gaps you need to fill. Decide which of these are the most important to your development goals and focus on mastering them.

2. Track your progress 

Think about what you’re learning and note it down in a journal or logbook. This will help you assess your progress and keep you motivated to achieve your goals.

3. Get feedback 

Ask for feedback on your work from supervisors, colleagues and clients. You may even find a mentor this way.

4. Get personally involved 

Acknowledge that building market-relevant skills will require more effort than the learning opportunities your employer is probably willing to provide. Be prepared to invest your own time and money towards your development.

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