This post draws on years of working with businesss making the transition to new ways of working, from a 7-year long collaboration with the Director of Global Workplace Innovation at a large US corporate, and from innovating executive education nationally and internationally. It’s a summary of how work is changing – or should be – and what it means for 21st Century skills.
I’m sure that you don’t need me to tell you that work’s changing and that old knowledge about ways of working and organising might no longer be fit-for-purpose in today’s inter-connected, increasingly complex and uncertain global business environment.
I say might not be because I think that some of us are too ready to be seduced by novelty in all the hype about the future of work. The result is that long-established insight on designing adaptive, customer-focused organisations based on innovation and knowledge-sharing are the baby thrown out with the future-hype bathwater.
But that’s another story.
What is true is that workplace skills are currently challenged by wider trends in the business environment. Here are just a few and some thoughts about what they mean for skills:
1. All hail the customer!
Customer power is expanding as they connect online, making recommendations and collectively denting reputations when businesses get things wrong. Plus customers are no longer satisfied with just accepting what they are given: they increasingly expect to be included in designing the products and services that they want.
In 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era, Nilofer Merchant gives an interesting example of using social technologies to get responses from customers and signalling fashion trends directly from the cat walk to manufacturers. She says:
“When companies figure out how to shape their design, production, and manufacturing cycle from rigid planning and production systems to unique customer-driven experiences, they’ll design a way to respond in smaller bursts of more profitable cycles.”
But they did figure that out years ago through organising and managing supplier relationships. This level of agility is not possible without mobilising the relationships, skills, commitment, creativity and problem-solving capabilities of everyone in the business and beyond into the extended supply network.
Apart from understanding who your customers are and what they want, organising for customer focus means having the social skills to connect, cooperate and coordinate within and across organisational boundaries. What specific social skills will be needed?
2. Art, technology and science colliding
Flipping through the channels a while back, I caught a programme on BBC2,Beneath the Lab Coat. What caught my attention was a presenter talking to a young shoe designer, who was an architect by training and was using his understanding of structures to custom-design fabulous and unique shoes. He began by making a 3D scan of a foot and then used CAD software in the design.
Next he made a tiny, scaled-down shoe for the presenter using a 3D printer. The actual shoes he had designed and made in this way were gorgeous. Now I already knew about 3D printing and its revolutionary potential but to see these shoes was extraordinary.
NASA plan to launch a 3D printer into space in 2014 to see if astronauts can manufacture spare parts and tools in zero gravity. This all sounds like science fiction but it is not. These technologies are creating immense possibilities for life-enriching products at the intersection of art, technology and science.
So thinking back to social skills, one of these will be the ability to talk and work with people in different professions. This can be a real problem. A Chief Executive of a drugs company told me that one of his biggest problems was that scientists in his company could not communicate effectively with scientists from different disciplines.
3. Consumerisation of work
One outcome of people having access to such powerful communication technologies, so personal that they become an extension of who we are, is growing demands and expectations of being able to bring their own devices to work.
And this consumerisation of work doesn’t only apply to technology, it applies to expectations of choice of where and when to work. Young people in particular are apparently keen to work in workplaces that offer them flexible approaches to working, including opportunity to work from co-working spaces of their choice — away from the office.
It would be wrong though to think that they and their older colleagues are clamouring to work extensively from home or alternative locations. There are a number of reasons for this — for discussion another time.
And on the business side, you only have to look at the the recent kerfuffle when Yahoo! CEO Merissa Meyer banned working from home. Just because the technology facilitates something does not mean that mobile and remote working is available to everyone.
Skills connected with this trend would include ability to appreciate what people want from work and to manage autonomous colleagues who choose where and when to work.
4. The Borg Organisation emerges
The idea of an organisation as a stand-alone entity is now inconceivable. Businesses are increasingly operating in ‘hive-minds’ of strategic alliances and partnerships to share risks, to access capital or to gain access to knowledge and skills. And they are operating within fast-responding supply networks to deliver customer value.
Apart from acquiring and honing social skills linked to appreciating and accommodating cultural diversity (see below) other skills include ability to recognise and minimise — if possible — the emotional cost of creative and destructive conflict, power struggles, and the jockying for personal and institutional advantage that go with collaborative alliances.
5. Cultural mash-up
One consequence of this networked blurring of organisational boundaries is an increase in cultural diversity in workplaces. We all come from somewhere and lived through an era — for me this was just at the time when shipbuilding and all the supporting engineering collapsed in my hometown and throughout the wider region.
We are all influenced by the family, social and economic context of our early lives. While culture is a slippery concept, I am using the word to mean the values and attitudes that influence us all — so deeply that we may not be aware of them and not appreciate that others do not see the world the way we do.
As we become more geographically mobile or stay at home and become part of global, digitally-connected workplaces, we are more and more likely to be working with people influenced by attitudes and values different to our own.
But cultural attitudes and values aren’t only time-based, national and regional; they are also demographic and professional. A lot has been written about so-called Generation Y or Millenials — the youngest cohorts joining the global workforce.
In his book Drive, Dan Pink compares the influence of Baby Boomers — the enormous group now retiring — and the youngest Generation Y in the workplace. He talks about these generations at the opposite end of the working life continuum as ‘the Book End Generation’.
I did a literature review for research on Generation Y several years ago. We noted the same thing that Pink did; that these two value-driven generations appear to be motivated by ideology and learning. But then again, being value-driven and needing to learn is not restricted to these two demographic groups.
How can you so simplistically label such diverse personalities with such different backgrounds? We have to be careful about pigeon-holing people. Even so it is highly likely that people are influenced by multiple cultural influences.
Visiting the premises of an international architect’s practice in London a while ago, our host showing a group of us around told us that the average age of people working in the practice was just over 30. Forty nationalities were represented in the building. He said that the building was more like a university campus than an office.
Cultural diversity will differ from workplace to workplace. In the example of the architects practice, the source of the diversity was national — all architects and mostly young. Other professions might be less (or equally) nationally diverse but more skewed towards either end of the age spectrum.
And on top of that, attitudes, values and languages from different professional cultures get thrown into the social mix — for example the drugs company CEO’s communication challenges mentioned earlier. Oh, plus the attitudes, values and territtorial ambitions of different functions — IT, HR, Marketing and Facilities for example.
6. Complexity increasing
And the connected, networked configurations of organisations is all tied in with increasing product complexity — for example using new materials and integrated electronics in new and familiar products. Things that we know, cars for example, are not what they used to be. They are much, much more complex.
According to an NBC news article at the time, the Toyota recalls of 2009 were linked to the increasing complexity and inter-connectedness of technical systems. Could the problem have been something to do with materials? Was it mechanical? Electronic? Expert opinion at the time was that the problem was “not likely a single problem but an alignment of complicated interconnected conditions.”
Integration of computers and electronic sensors into familiar products increases not only technical complexity but organisational complexity too. What this means is that knowledge is becoming more connected, socially complex and culturally diverse as people learn to communicate across multiple professional, organisational, technical, geographical and demographic boundaries.
7. Serial incompetents
Neil Usher (@workessence) says that we are all “serial incompetents.” I love that. It perfectly expresses the fact that work for many, if not most of us, is constantly changing and we are having to do things we have never done before.
And because work for many is becoming more socially and culturally complex, and knowledge more abstract, this means that more and more people in organisations — particularly at operational levels — are having to deal routinely with complex issues.
21st Century Skills – what are they?
What skills do we need to navigate social, cultural and technological complexity? What do 21st Century Skills look like? As a start, I think they include:
- Social skills connected with collaboration and boundary-blurring conversations (across knowledge disciplines, functions, companies etc
- Social skills connected with cultural diversity
- Listening to customers and colleagues — what do they need and is this changing?
- Understanding performance environments — what do people need to work and learn together, given that the workplace is now so mobile and distributed and knowledge so complex and inter-disciplinary?
- Constantly learning to sense, learn, unlearn and adapt.
And that’s only scratching at the surface. Here are a few other 21st century skills.
In the 2010 IBM Global CEO Survey Capitalizing on complexity, CEOs selected creativity as the most important leadership attribute. From the report:
“Creative leaders invite disruptive innovation, encourage others to drop outdated approaches and take balanced risks. They are open-minded and inventive in expanding their management and communication styles, particularly to engage with a new generation of employees, partners and customers.”
I heard the British scientist Baroness Susan Greenfield speaking about creativity around the time that report came out. She also very strongly linked creativity and the development of cognitive skills to challenge.
Adults, she said, are “metaphorical beings” who construct understanding through concepts, metaphors and critical reflection — drawing on insights and understanding from past, present and future, and making mental leaps across inter-disciplinary fields of knowledge.
Creating new insight begins with challenging dogma, which means challenging existing neural connections. But challenge is not enough. The next the next step is to deconstruct, to bring together unusual elements — to “see one thing in terms of something else.” The final step is to have an ‘aha’ moment and this is where new cognitive connections are made.
Why challenge the status quo? Because attitudes and minds easily become fixed especially if a way of doing something was effective in the past. Why change a winning formula? Because it is no longer appropriate. Constantly asking questions, evaluating how things are done and remaining vigilant are vital because the outside business environment is so unpredictable and dynamic.
Thinking and acting in complex contexts
What specific operational, intellectual and social skills are needed to think and act effectively in complex contexts? Complex contexts are uncertain – and full of conflict, paradox and ethical dilemmas. You have to be able to evaluate the learning context — and of course for organisations that means appreciating the consequences of relationship dynamics, alliances and inter-connections.
In the face of all these moving targets, you have to be able to make judgments about courses of action — choosing what you are going to do from a range of alternatives, all of which have unpredictable and risky outcomes.
How do you choose? Using what criteria? Why those criteria rather than others? What ethical and moral judgements are you having to make? Where are the risks? And many other questions. Exactly how do you go about developing these operational, intellectual and social skills?
Asking questions and thinking critically
I wrote about critical thinking in an old blog post. Here’s a summary of the skills involved in critical thinking:
1. Ability to scope and identify interacting elements of a problem — or what you think they are
2. Ability to assess risks in the process
3. Ability to challenge assumptions (your own and those of other people)
4. Ability to evaluate possible options from among alternatives
5. Ability to identify and defend selection criteria
6. Ability to reflect on the effects of paradoxes, constraints and incomplete knowledge
7. Ability to use evidence to draw valid and justifiable conclusions in making a case for action.
I also wrote in the previous post about the Social Business School as an effective alternative to traditional business schools. How could it help develop 21st century skills? That’s for another post.