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Aside from technological change, communication and staff training also play a central role

Digital transformation is often seen as just a technological process that focuses on digitalizing certain aspects of a business. Frequently, not enough thought is given to the need to achieve continual change, and factors such as communication, corporate culture, staff training and the learning culture are particularly likely to be undervalued. Professor Dr. Pia Sue Helferich and Professor Dr. Thomas Pleil, experts at the flux Steinbeis Transfer Center in Dieburg, explain why these factors play such an important role when it comes to succeeding with the digital change processes within companies.

When it comes to understanding digital transformation within companies – and rather than seeing it as a one-off project, actually engendering a fundamental willingness to embrace change in the company DNA – a crucial role is played by communication, company culture, staff training, and the learning culture. One important aspect of this is lifelong learning. When employees undergo lifelong training on the job, it not only safeguards their employability and job satisfaction, it also helps the company to stay competitive and flexible, so it can gear itself to any situation that may arise.

The concept of lifelong learning is nothing new, but the conditions that dictate our home and work lives have changed due to increasing levels of digitalization (Uhlig 2008, p. 13; Head et al. 2015), and this has an impact on lifelong learning. There are a number of ways to learn within a company, from informal learning to learning on the job, learning from colleagues, and formal learning such as courses or special training (Head et al. 2015; Tough 1979; Avergun and Del Gaizo 2011, p. 198–199). In recent years there has been a rise in interest in informal learning (Eraut 2004, p. 247). This is mainly because everyday business involves a continual stream of new, smaller tasks or problems that have to be dealt with, and colleagues or online research can help solve some of these tasks, so learning effects are enjoyed by employees as an “incidental” benefit.


Informal lifelong learning also means that learners have to take more responsibility for their own learning process and therefore need certain competences. These include capabilities such as direct or digital interaction with others or knowing how to assess available information sources. Digital technology practically makes information available in real time and this has to be found, filtered, logged and evaluated by learners. These competences are already being discussed internationally under terms such as web literacy (Wittenbrink 2012) or digital literacy. The reason these competences are important when it comes to informal learning is that they are not just part of personal interaction at the office. These are competences that bridge the gap between finding and knowing how to deal with information and digital interactions. It’s also important how capable somebody is of processing and presenting information so that it can be used by others.


It’s against this background that more and more attention is being paid to the issue of how companies can promote lifelong learning among employees. Pia Sue Helferich and Thomas Pleil have been working with a team at Steinbeis on the following tips for companies. They are based on a survey of small and medium-sized enterprises in the communication industry (Helferich 2017).

  • Networking and social relationships: For many, social relationships – both digital and in “real life” – play a key role in lifelong learning. Companies can support this by organizing internal events such as BarCamps or other learning and exchange events, using methods like the “working out loud” technique. But it’s also important to maintain external contacts for lifelong learning, since this injects new knowledge into the company. This can be achieved by attending external events, and it’s also important to manage digital networks through online communities such as LinkedIn, XING, Twitter and co.
  • Give people enough time to invest in certain topics: Some companies give their staff weekly time budgets (e.g. 2, 3, or 4 hours) to concentrate on a topic of their choice. They then share this knowledge with co-workers.
  • Don’t see knowledge as an instrument of power: Sharing knowledge should be a core principle at a company and not be used as an instrument of power. A culture of giving and taking knowledge paves the way for lifelong learning.
  • Foster personal projects: Some of the companies surveyed gave staff an opportunity to use company resources for their own projects, such as a hackathon for a good cause. This does take up company resources, especially at the beginning, but then it results in staff feeling more motivated and people becoming more involved or identifying more with everyday events at the company. It can also be used as a fountain of innovation.

These measures only represent a small number of examples of the actions companies can take to promote a corporate culture that allows employees to engage in lifelong learning.


Prof. Dr. Pia Sue Helferich (author)
flux – Organisational Development, Communications and Learning  (Dieburg)


Prof. Dr. Thomas Pleil
flux – Organisational Development, Communications and Learning (Dieburg)



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