As the Fourth Industrial Revolution continues to raise the knowledge and skill stakes for competing in the 21st-century, technology-enabled workplace, it’s clear that traditional corporate learning and development falls short. A large part of the problem is the static nature of traditional online and in-classroom instruction – an ineffective “one-size-fits-none” approach that often results in learner fatigue.

Across all industries and business sectors, employers grapple with how to equip workers, from long-time employees to new entrants to the workforce. For example, the “Skillful” initiative from the Markle Foundation, in partnership with Microsoft and LinkedIn as well as state and local leaders, seeks to aid the transition to a “skills-based labor market,” according to its website. A major objective is ensuring that people who don’t have a four-year college degree are not shut out of opportunities. Such initiatives highlight the widespread need for skill-building and to explore solutions.

But there is another L&D concern that can inadvertently compound the skills gap: episodic training that occurs only during specific time periods and for specific purposes. We need continuous upgrading and refreshing of knowledge and skills with a lifelong learning approach. This L&D concept has been around for many years but is experiencing renewed interest as a way of increasing employment opportunities for more people.

As a recent McKinsey Global Institute report observed, “Employers, employees, educational institutions, and public-sector leaders need to start talking about ‘lifelong employability’: helping people continually and successfully adapt as the economy evolves.”

Episodic Training Falls Short

Instead of taking a lifelong learning approach, L&D has tended to be episodic to accommodate new learning needs. For example, the typical impetus for rolling out a training program is the installation of a new process or technology. The rapid evolution of technology and the accelerating pace of doing business render this episodic approach insufficient. Today more than ever, workers at all levels need to continuously expand their knowledge and skills in order to make the most of the human-plus-technology combination.

As the McKinsey authors observed, “Rather than focusing on retraining and reskilling as ends to themselves, we must reframe these topics as a means to the specific end of remaining employable for as long as one desires to be a part of the workforce.” For corporate L&D, this vision is powerful: to move beyond the episodic needs associated with training – ensuring that “X” people take compliance and safety courses this year or that we are training “Y” people in the new software to assist with customer relationship management. Corporate L&D holds the key to a future of lifelong employability.

The ultimate goal is to move away from simply taking and completing courses and, instead, focus on building and maintaining competency or proficiency in a skill or function. Ongoing, formative assessments can identify learners’ individual needs to build competence, close knowledge gaps and improve their skill proficiencies in the 21st-century workplace.

As artificial intelligence (AI) and automation make greater inroads, skills at every level must be continuously upgraded. This situation underscores the importance of moving from episodic to lifelong learning, with a personalized approach that meets learners where they are, identifies their gaps in knowledge and skills, and provides instruction accordingly. Historically, the only way to achieve such personalization was through tutoring, with one-on-one instruction. This approach, however, is prohibitively expensive for corporate L&D and is not scalable.

Adaptive Learning for Lifelong Learning

Enter adaptive learning. By bringing together the best of computer science and cognitive research, adaptive learning delivers a personalized, computer-based approach that adjusts to the needs of each learner in online and blended learning scenarios. Such personalization not only improves engagement but is also key to gaining efficiency when training employees who typically have little time to devote to learning while they carry out their daily business activities.

In contrast to the static and inflexible e-learning of the past, adaptive learning is customizable and can be tailored to each learner. With a “questions-first” approach, advanced adaptive learning platforms engage learners and pinpoint specific knowledge and skill gaps. This process includes identifying “unconscious incompetence,” which occurs when people think they know something but, in fact, do not.

Moreover, adaptive learning’s tutor-like approach allows learners to skip over what they’ve already mastered, without compromising proficiency. As a result, adaptive learning becomes more effective and efficient; often, learners reach competency twice as fast as in traditional e-learning or instructor-led training. This approach also allows learners to self-assess continuously by asking how confident they are before the platform shows them the answer. In this way, learners improve both competence and confidence.

As learners experience the benefits of personalized adaptive learning, they help create and foster a culture of lifelong learning. While this process begins with investment at the top – the chief learning officer working closely with other C-suite leaders – it carries through the entire organization. People at all levels engage in learning that is meaningful and makes a difference in their employability, now and in the future. Learning and growing become a virtuous circle that leads to ever-expanding knowledge and skills to help ensure lifelong employability.