This article was originally published on www.myHRfuture.com/blog.
Innovation does not just change our behaviour (think of how smart phones and social media have changed how we interact), but also what we need to master to be relevant in the economy. Simply put, the faster we innovate, the faster jobs are redesigned to incorporate new technologies.
The data on this issue suggests that there is a general trend towards more relationship-based and expertise-driven work. However, it also suggests that the type of expertise deployed is also changing more quickly. This results in a shrinking shelf life of technical skills. Our technical knowledge and abilities become less relevant faster. Against this backdrop, organisations and individuals are trying to find ways to stay relevant. It’s a difficult and stressful process that creates a lot of uncertainty.
This is why concepts like ‘growth mindset’ and ‘agile mindset’ have caught the attention of business and HR leaders. Indeed, large and very successful businesses have made them central to their culture and values systems. Leaders know that they need everyone to work even harder to keep up with the changing needs of customers. As the inspirational Satya Nadella has said, “the learn-it-all does better than the know-it-all”. For many people, the idea that having the right mindset is central to learning and change, makes sense.
But does it make sense? Mindsets are belief systems – assumptions, attitudes and opinions – that inform decisions and behaviours. They are vital for building culture and collective coordination and action. When we want a group of people who find it easier to work together to solve a problem, it really helps if they share a mindset. However, the evidence that these belief systems impact learning and change outcomes for individuals in business is mixed. Robust research does suggest that intelligence has improved dramatically over the last 100 years, mostly because of the change in the demands we experience from our environment (e.g. we need to think in more abstract and complex ways, so we learn to do so). People change because they must.
Looking more closely at the way organisations express their needs for a growth or agile mindset, what we often see is that they articulate a set of capabilities and behaviours which help people learn and adapt. What they are really looking for is a set of skills that help people drive continuous learning and change. This is important because it means that adopting an always-on learning approach is much more than a way of thinking – it is also a set of skills that we can teach people.
In our work with the Singapore government, we have been calling these the “skills to build skills” or “critical core skills”. They are the skills that form the foundation of our resilience as a species. They are also skills that endure consistently over time to enhance our technical capabilities.
The framework we at Mercer helped to develop for the Singapore government outlines three vital clusters of critical core skills:
We can call these critical core skills “skills to build skills” because they all contribute to consuming, processing and using new information effectively. In other words, these skills are all about learning in some way. Whether people are learning about the needs of others or seeing patterns in the world around them – these skills power personal insight and development.
1. Soft skills increase in importance
In our discussions with a cross-section of the organisations in Singapore (c. more than 100 of them), we found that the increase in innovation and use of new technologies had heightened the demand for softer skills like influence, adaptability and sense making. This was, in part, because work has become more complex, but also because it had become more important to effectively interact with other people. Gone are the days when people could get away with being a technical genius who is impossible to work with (like Dr. House). The technology we use exposes us to other people more often – making our capacity for connection more important.
2. People learn most effectively from other people
We also saw evidence that most people at work learn most effectively from other people. The inference was that social and collaborative skills also enhanced learning opportunities (perhaps it should come as no surprise that people who learn to listen and interact well with other people also consume a lot of new information). Indeed the research on humility in leaders suggests that one of the reasons why being humble boosts leadership effectiveness is because it allows a more efficient and open exchange of information between different levels of hierarchy.
Informal, peer-to-peer learning is often not acknowledged as learning within organisations. Collaborative activities like brainstorming and problem solving inevitably involve learning from other people however this is not defined in any way as ‘learning,’ but simply as ‘work.’ The more visible we can make this kind of learning – the more we can acknowledge it as such – the more it can be consciously implemented and enhance work and the quality of work life.
3. The rising importance of self-management
Another striking insight centered around the rising importance of self-management. We noted that many jobs had become less structured over time – especially as technology has changed when, where and how we work. This heightens the importance of being able to manage your day independently and to take responsibility for your own work and personal growth. Indeed, psychologists have long known that highly conscientious people (who often display very effective self-management behaviours due to their personality) tend to be more successful at these things.
What we noted is that it has become even more important for all of us to learn skills and strategies that allow us to self-direct more often. Perhaps individual employees already understand this, which is why the Coursera “learning how to learn” course is the most popular one you can find.
So how do we get everyone to take the critical core skills challenge more seriously? Let’s start with the recognition that culture and capability are deeply connected. Yes, we absolutely need a mindset and culture that values learning, and (correctly) assumes that human beings have a remarkable capacity for adaptability. However, we also need to recognise that human behaviour is strongly influenced by skills and capabilities. Unless we also strengthen the skills we have the deliver on the promises of a growth mindset, then we will never achieve our full potential.
There are a few ways we can approach this:
Learning takes effort – which is why there is so much concern about how motivated people are to spend time on it. It is clear that some people have personalities that enable learning. Others are simply privileged to have the resources and time (learning is often a pastime of the elite). Taking a skills lens to this problem provides a different perspective. If we can teach people skills that help them learn more effectively, perhaps the whole process will become more accessible to everyone.