The Future Skills We Need


Esko Kilpi photo

Economic growth is about value added. In manufacturing it was adding value as a transformation process from raw materials to goods. Economic growth today is still about value added but the transformation process is often very different. The industrial process was a linear, sequential chain of predictable acts. The problem to be solved was known and the solution to the problem was clearly defined. In creative work, the transformation process is a non-linear, complex movement of thought from unclear problems to developing solutions. Work is exploration when defining problems as well as for creating solutions.

The worlds of mass manufacturing and contextual, problem-based work require very different thinking and skills. In the learning-intensive world we live in, it is not about reductionist job roles and narrow, clear responsibilities any more. Everybody needs to take part in the common movement of thought.

Economic success in creative work is the result of the inspiration, energy and interest you create, the “cool factor”; to fail is to find no one interested. Novel approaches and compelling arguments are the ones that capture people’s attention. Thinking develops best through friction, argumentation and negotiation. Paradoxically you always need people who agree, but equally, you need people who don’t think like you. This is important because thinking always clusters, in social groups, but even more so over time. Problem-based value added is interaction that is always based on working with differences. The requirement for efficient work is thus not necessarily to have common goals or to reach a consensus.

Before the Internet and efficient mobile communication devices, most professional occupations required individual competencies that in most cases had accumulated over years. This experience base, often called tacit knowledge, was used to retrieve answers from memory and to independently solve situations arising at work. Knowledge was situated in the individual. In order to help individuals cope with the challenges of everyday life, individual competencies needed to be developed. Our whole education system is still largely based on independent individuals learning and knowing.

The cognitive load of work has increased as a result of manufacturing giving way to problem-based work. As a consequence, the content of work is changing from generic, repetitive practices to contextual, creative practices. This makes the individual experience base by default too narrow a starting point for efficient work. Experiences can be a huge asset but also be a liability, creating recurrence where there should be context awareness and innovation. A new way of understanding work and competencies is unfolding: knowledge should be seen as networked communication. This requires us to learn new ways of talking about education, competencies and work itself. What is also needed is to unlearn the reductionist organizing principles that are still the mainstream. Work is communication and the network is the amplifier of knowledge creating value and learning. Work is not performed by independent individuals but by interdependent people in interaction

The new managerial task is to understand: (1) the speed of the common movement of thought, (2) what is being discussed, (3) the quality and “cool factor” of that conversation, and (4) how problems actually develop towards solutions and scalable learning. Thinking does not take place inside separate people but in rich, continuous interaction. The richer the interaction, the more value and learning are potentially created.

The onward movement of thinking occupies the most limited and important things there are: our time and attention. What we focus on is called our attention space. The attention space is the new metaphor for the industrial process and the corporate office. It is a “place of the mind”. It is an expression of our effort and the live movement of thinking. For an entrepreneur or a startup, it is always the most important real-time measurement of what is actually going on. The driving force behind power and change is competition for room in this space. The role of leadership is to influence the conversations occupying the attention space, the mind of the organization. Too much and you don’t get anywhere; too little, and the result is the same.

The management task is to enhance the speed of the common movement of thought, expressed as the interactive capacity for transforming problems into solutions and scalable learning.

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