Career Resources

Learning 4.0: Be an Unstoppable Learner

By Patricia A. McLagan

It’s easy to take your learning process for granted. But don’t. It is a key survival skill to upgrade so that you can stay current, thrive on teams, and help others learn in the face of the game-changing learning challenges facing and being created by the engineering world.

Engineers, computer scientists ” all technology professionals, really ” have many reasons to care about learning ” perhaps more reasons than most people. You work with information and technologies that are continually transforming. You are constantly solving problems that require you to rethink your approaches and innovate (learning is key here!). You find yourself in working in teams, exposed to diverse thinking and perspectives ” you must stretch and even revise your own view of the world, and help others stretch theirs. As you gain experience, expertise and wisdom ” or even if you are a new recruit with up-to-date knowledge that others can use ” you often find yourself helping others to learn.

These are all rather common learning-related challenges in your engineering and technology work. But there is more. Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that by 2020, knowledge will double every 73 days. And imagine a coming “singularity” ”  the time when technology and humans become so intertwined that we may become a new hybrid form. What happens to learning then?

Think, too, about all the disciplines we used to assume were separate ” biology, engineering, physics, psychology, philosophy, marketing, ethics, and others. They are coming together in new ways that increase the engineer’s learning challenge, for it is the engineer who brings these disciplines together as innovative solutions to existing or anticipated problems. The new ” smart ” processing capabilities of technology add another dimension: as technology becomes smarter, so must its users!

How do you keep yourself and the teams you are part of attuned to this new learning environment? What does it mean for how you learn with other engineers in this world that your technologies are so rapidly changing?

Time for a Learning Upgrade

Learning is your most important process for dealing with change. Think of yourself having learning software running inside you. You came into the world with basic programming ” call it Learning 1.0. You learned by trial and error and imitation. Then you went to school and upgraded to Learning 2.0. You adopted society’s ways of thinking about problems and interacting with others. When you left school, you were on your own and began to direct your learning toward your own specific life,work goals and problems. You programmed yourself for more self-directed learning: Learning 3.0.


In the meantime, the information field got more complex ” thanks to social media, digitization, and the ability for anyone to publish anything. And thanks to the increasing array of learning tools and resources ” apps, social, learning games, just-in-time mobile knowledge support, online learning, increasingly smart and predictive technologies, plus workshops, videos and podcasts, and more!

Previous learning upgrades are inadequate in this new environment. Nor do they adequately reflect what neuroscientists and psychologists are discovering about how our learning actually happens. As neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of The Brain says, your brain is quirky and does most of its work incognito ” beyond rational control (a very scary thought for many engineers!)

What does the new learning, this learning 4.0 upgrade, look like?

The best way to answer this question is to put yourself in the shoes of a 4.0 learner. So, as you read on, imagine yourself operating with advanced learning capabilities: try on Learning 4.0.

To start, notice that with Learning 4.0 you are more imaginative. You use your immense brain power (90 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections) to create immersive, but imaginary, virtual reality futures that subconsciously and consciously motivate your learning and guide your actions. You are also more anticipatory and predictive ” as a 4.0 learner you hear very subtle calls to learn before others do ” sensing them in emerging strategies, recognizing them in barely detectible disturbances that could later become problems and crises. With your 4.0 learning capacity, it is also more common to leave your comfort zone in order to pull learning from any experience ” whether it suits your learning style or not. And 4.0 equips you to be a much smarter user of information, detecting what is true and reliable in the increasingly crowded and often distorted and manipulative information field. You quickly recognize and adjust for bias and distortion when it occurs ” in your learning resources, in others, even in yourself.

With 4.0 learning capability, you also co-evolve with technology and stay ahead of it. You evolve yourself to both shape and competently use what technology produces. Big data? You know how to request what you need and you bring a broad perspective and expert eye to enquiries and conclusions ” noticing when you are not getting what you need. The point is, with 4.0, you and your human colleagues remain in charge and technology serves.


With 4.0 learning you are also practical and concerned about using learning to make yourself and the world around you better. You began by detecting the faintest of calls to learn within and outside you, and you end by making needed habit changes, as well as influencing and re-engineering the social as well as the technological environment around you. As a 4.0 learner, you are a conscious, committed and competent change agent, bringing learning to life in day-to-day reality.

All of the above 4.0 capabilities apply to teams, too. And they are important qualities to bring into any relationship where you are coaching or helping others learn.

How to launch your Learning 4.0 upgrade

4.0 thinking and practices are desperately needed in today’s engineering and science world. What does this mean in practice?

First, it means that each professional must become a more conscious and competent learner. As an engineer and knowledge worker, the main knowledge tool you have is your brain and your own mind-body mechanism that uses that brain. Start by understanding what neuroscientists are discovering about how your brain actually works. And pay more attention to the influence your own psychology has on how you think and what drives your attention and energy. Tune your full self for better learning ” consciously and subconsciously (sleep, dreams, and automatic processing in your brain are important factors for your learning success).

Second, in the interest of both efficient and effective learning, use a 4.0 framework to guide your own learning ” whether you are learning in the moment, pursuing a longer-term learning goal, or deliberately mining lessons from experience (e.g., “after action reviews”). Good process, as every engineer knows, both guides and unleashes energy and ideas. Bring good process into your learning activities as a way to make them more effective and to support you in using the higher-level learning capabilities of learning 4.0.

Third, bring conscious competence and 4.0 learning process into your team learning experiences. When you work in teams, develop and pursue a learning agenda as well as a performance plan. As a group ” for the group and for individuals in it ” be guided to higher learning performance by a shared 4.0 framework for learning.

Finally, bring a 4.0 mindset into your coaching and helping activities. Young engineers expect to continue to grow and develop at a rate that matches technology changes and they look to their more experienced colleagues to help them along their development path. And there is reverse and peer coaching ” with new recruits often bringing fresh ideas to their more experienced colleagues, and peers continually sharing new insights. Whatever the relationship, when you help others learn you also influence how they learn. Make sure you are working from the latest learning upgrade when you support others in their change process.

You learning process can no longer be taken for granted. You are a learning organism ” you have always been. The question is, will you reprogram this marvelous capability of yours to both adapt to and shape this new world that your technologies are creating?

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

Related Articles

One Comment

  1. This is a great article — good advice. Lifelong learning is a key strategy for a successful and rewarding career. I suggest that technical professional’s include reading IEEE Spectrum on a regular basis. Spectrum keeps IEEE members up to date on breakthrough developments that help one focus on strategic career decisions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button