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The most essential skill to thrive in the future is one we must all share

The most essential skill to thrive in the future is one we must all share

If the economic crisis unleashed by COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that what you know matters a great deal, but not as much as a willingness to learn.

Reports about the changing nature of work have been coming in thick and fast for some time. We have heard about automation, augmented workforces and hybrid jobs (that combine previously separate skills, such as HR managers with soft skills and rigorous people analytics capability), but it has taken the COVID-19 crisis to make us pay
full attention.

After over a quarter of a century without a recession in Australia, no one now seems exempt from the possibility of job loss. Australia’s unemployment rate recently climbed to a 22-year high of 7.4 per cent, with almost one million jobs lost during the COVID-19 period so far.

Many industries have changed beyond recognition. The education sector has had to shift its way of teaching in a matter of days by moving classes online, and retail is building in automation to respond to changing consumer demand for e-commerce. Some industries have contracted severely – think of accommodation or food services – while others, such as healthcare, have experienced growth in demand. Some countries, such as Sweden, have successfully responded to these unprecedented fluctuations through rapid re-skilling programs that have seen airline staff move into healthcare or teaching.

The volatility in job markets caused by COVID-19 has accelerated the need for leaders to make upskilling and reskilling their workforce part of their day-to-day responsibilities.

The leaders of 2020 and beyond need to proactively create future-fit workforces whose skills evolve in line with areas in demand. They need to think about how to implement learning capabilities into their cultures, systems, and processes to ensure that skills keep up with changing requirements.

Adapting to in-demand skills
An example of an in-demand skill is data analytics. The proliferation of data has been one of the most impactful changes in the jobs and skills landscape over the last decade. Many ‘old’ jobs have shifted focus to be more data-enabled, and entirely new roles continue to emerge.

The economic and health challenges brought about by COVID-19 have thrown the spotlight on the importance of data-informed decisions. For example, consider the need to base decisions about introducing or easing lockdown measures on concrete facts and statistical modelling.

Moreover, in an economically constrained environment, the ability to base decisions on data is more important than ever before. Questions such as where to invest, how to best solve a customer problem with limited resources, and who will make the best hire, are all examples of decisions optimised by competent use of data.

However, some reports show that over two thirds of executives aren’t comfortable accessing, analysing or interpreting data to make evidence-based decisions, suggesting they and organisations require support to build data analysis and literacy skills to thrive in this challenging pandemic period and beyond.

Data literacy goes beyond technical capability and requires the ability to derive insight from data, understand the context in which data is generated and applied, ask the right questions when gathering data, and question sources critically. These softer skills point to the broader need for leaders to create a learning culture in which curiosity and the ability to learn are encouraged and role modelled.

A willingness to learn
To complement building capability in areas of demand, such as data analytics, leaders themselves need to know how to learn and change rapidly and embed this ability in their organisational cultures, systems and processes.

‘Learning agility’ is a teachable mindset, related to a willingness and enthusiasm to explore new problems. It is about an individual ‘knowing what to do when they don’t know what to do’. More important than being able to forecast or control an uncertain future are the practices of reflecting, being curious and adopting different frames of reference to make sense of a situation. They are core to learning agility because they allow leaders, and the people they lead, to quickly understand and meet emerging problems.

As we continue to go through unprecedented times, with demands on industries and organisations fluctuating quickly, learning agility will prove to be especially important. Research shows how curiosity can foster reflective and creative solutions to business problems and allow organisations to adapt to uncertain market conditions, thereby enhancing organisational performance.

For leaders, that means accepting they don’t always have the answers and admitting their shortcomings and ignorance, while encouraging in themselves and others a love for learning and desire to explore new problems with curiosity and reflection. Leader role modelling must also thoroughly consider how to embed learning-agility practices into an organisation’s systems and processes.

These unprecedented times have not just changed the skills that are needed to thrive, they have changed the responsibility of leaders to ensure these skills are adapted and developed. Skill building must fit with the rhythms of daily life and meet the clear preference for a flexible and personalised blend of online and face-to-face learning that is delivered where it is most needed.

By Nora Koslowski, the executive director of the Organisational Learning Group at Melbourne Business School.

Dakin Mayers
Dakin Mayers