Growing your own

Before the gardeners among you get all excited about the prospect of veg tips, I’d better explain that I’m talking about managers – or senior team members or just specialists within your organisation.

Every year around this time you’ll inevitably read about issues with recruiting graduates or school leavers. Usually, there are too many chasing too few opportunities or the skills they have garnered over expensive years of study are not really suitable for those required by businesses. Apart from grumbling, what can employers do about this state of affairs?

Well, there’s always the option of attracting talent from other organisations, but often that’s expensive. What’s more, in uncertain times many of those in work are preferring to stay where they are rather than take a potentially risky move to a new role in a new organisation.
This is where growing your own comes in. Recruiting those straight from school, college or university and shaping them into the roles needed in the future. And it is the future we’re talking about. Now I don’t expect 2011’s graduates to stay with one employer for the whole of their career (although we may see longer term periods of employment in a flat lining economy) but we should bear in mind that this year’s university graduates may well be in the workforce until 2060. What role will we be preparing people for? What will that future look like? Imagine someone joining an organisation in 1951 and retiring this year? Look at the changes they have experienced. Data processing in the 1950s involved hand written ledgers and countless clerks. Will this year’s graduates look back at our current highly technological work environment and see something they regard as equally antiquated? They might.

The issue is that those who succeed will do so not just because they can respond to change, but will succeed because they drive it – both innovating on their own and applying last year’s innovations in new ways within next year’s contexts.

So we are preparing people for a very different organisation and a very different world than the one we currently live and work in. And that brings me to the challenge facing HR teams and learning professionals to adequately prepare a new crop of future employees for a world which may be very different.

One relatively safe prediction I think I can make is that whatever development route is envisioned for this group will be primarily work-based. It will also harness connectivity – the endless opportunities to interact with information, opinion and people remotely – with which those of us who grew up with a typing pool next door are only just coming to terms. Our ‘Generation C’ employees (the C stands for connected) take this way of being completely for granted.

There will be formal training input but for the main part the learning will be work-based – learning through doing, finding out, responding to new situations by developing new ways of working, new behaviours and new skills. This is not the same as some talent management programmes in larger organisations, where staff are moved round every few years, taking on new projects and new roles. From the outside, the impact of these roundabout moves is not the deepening and shaping of strategy in response to new market conditions, but a strategic role which is subsumed beneath careerist mark making. Making an impact by undoing all that your predecessor has done, achieving one noteworthy thing then keeping your head down until the next move comes along and the process repeats itself.

I spoke to some senior managers about career and development planning and performance appraisal meetings recently. Every one of them noted how the people who report to them were hungry for progression – repeatedly outlining how their potential could best be achieved by taking on a new challenge, stretching their skills in new environments. Clearly, it is easier to make a mark by sweeping out the old, than it is by maintaining and incrementally enhancing the familiar and the business as usual.

So we may need a new paradigm for the development of our future talent – a talent that will succeed or fail in a very different environment than the one we now know. That paradigm starts with identifying the crucial skills which these individuals will need as they face the future decades. Interestingly, I don’t think the universities and colleges should be criticised for not developing the skills to work in current business. This would be a backward looking step. You and I wouldn’t be that impressed by someone who drives a car forward but focuses all their attention on their rear -view mirror. So, why would we want someone with a skill set which is already out of date by the time they have a chance to use it?

Instead we must look for those individuals with the universal skills which will enable them to take advantage of the uncertainties of the future.

First among these is being a skilled information seeker. I first coined this phrase around 10 years ago. The internet was still relatively new and we were just coming to terms with the impact that these new sources of information were having on work. An organisation called Echelon published a report based on a survey of HR directors and training people. In a nut shell it said that work roles were now so complicated and required such depth and breadth of knowledge that an individual couldn’t realistically be expected to know (in terms of having memorised) everything they would need to do their job. In short, knowing how to look things up was going to be essential for the future.

If only we’d known quite how far things would go! Recent studies suggest that human memory capacity is actually getting smaller as individuals effectively delegate the job of remembering stuff to a series of devices with effectively infinite capacity. I spoke to a group of teenagers recently, none of whom knew their home telephone number. It was speed dial two.

As the wealth of digital information and disinformation has grown, being a skilled information seeker has become not only a foundation stone, an essential capability for the 21st Century – it has also evolved as a skill set. No longer is it enough to know how to search and navigate various information sources. Now, it is necessary to have a degree of media literacy previously undreamt of. The differentiator for those who succeed through to 2060 will not simply be an ability to find information, but to critically analyse it, to sift the definitive from the deceptive, to know the difference between the proven and the porky pie. Many don’t. Those reviewing dissertations and theses from students now have to explain very, very slowly to their charges that Wikipedia is not necessarily a reliable reference source. The co-founder of Wikipedia, Jerry Sanger, was a philosophy professor at Ohio State University. He would deduct five marks from any student who cited Wikipedia as a source. When asked about this, Jimmy Wales, the other brain behind the 7th most visited website in the world, agreed with his former colleague’s practice. To quote Wales in an interview with the Independent last year: “Whatever 26-year-old tech geek males are interested in we do a very good job on. [But] things that are in other fields we could do with some more users participating.”

So skill one for those who will lead our organisations in two or three decade’s time is to be a skilled information seeker with the ability to differentiate reliable from unreliable information.
But looking things up is not the same as learning and my next crucial capability is to be a skilled, independent learner.

In an environment where work related learning may be fragmented – a combination of on the job experiences, use of learning programmes, in part online, and developmental projects (as well as very occasional course attendance) – the multi-dimensional learner who cannot only open themselves up to these new experiences but reflect on what these experiences may mean for the future, will be a valuable individual in any team. The connectivity I mentioned earlier will be a real focus of this reflection. Not in being a consumer of the blogs and wikis of others, but in contributing and articulating concepts, theories, ideas and experiences in ways which resonate with peers. Jimmy Wales’s 26 year old tech geek males provide an interesting model for future learners.

The real value of online connectivity as part of the learning process is not necessarily in the raft of information thus made available. It is in the process of constructing these artefacts of our work experience that real value will be – and already is being – generated. Working on a project recently in which groups of learners from different locations will be brought together for short periods; the value of the ongoing remote community was discussed. We all agreed that membership would be reserved not for those who turn up for the workshops, but limited to those who contribute to the ongoing debates through posts, blogs and online experience sharing. Contributing is not an option, it is a requirement.

My third and final skill is what I call an enquiring mind. This is not just a function of problem solving in a connected world. It is about someone who asks the awkward questions, challenges received wisdoms and established conventions. When working with a group involved in innovation recently I came across “knowledge scouts”. Their role is not to think up new ideas, but scout around for new insights about the ways innovations are being used and the people and organisations with the capabilities to contribute to the creation of commercially viable new products. They are mining the creativity which surrounds us and asking simple questions. What if we did that too? Does the fact that these consumers use X mean that if we create Y they would also use that? They are trend-spotters and observers of the zeitgeist. Not to rip off the ideas of someone else, but to re-shape novelty in their own image. They synthesise what is going on and create new opportunities from unexpected combinations of ideas and innovations. The mash-up first seen in night clubs and music videos has become a tool for exploiting ideas by standing on the shoulders of the achingly fashionable giants which surround us.

Now look at your own organisation’s competence framework. In there will be a set of core behaviours and skills, common to all roles in your organisation. They are intended to be the very warp and weft of your organisational culture. Do you recognise my key skills for growing your own talent in those common capabilities? Teaching your 2011 intake the stuff which gets done in your organisation is going to be hard enough. Teaching them if they don’t have these essential skills in the future, will be nigh on impossible.

Robin Hoyle is the head of learning at Infinity Learning, the education design company that develops new technologies to deliver tailoured learning solutions

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