Can Learning Adaptability Help Us Close the Skills Gap?

Ross Thornley
December 9, 2019
December 9, 2019
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There is a great deal of anxiety around employability, skills, and future job prospects at the moment; the anxiety is not only understandable, but rational. According to the new IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) study, 120 million workers in twelve of the world’s largest economies may need to be retrained as a result of AI and intelligent automation. Other studies tell of an even more drastic story. McKinsey & Co’s 2017 report estimated 800 million jobs will vanish worldwide by 2030.

Needless to say, there is an emergent skills gap developing. The skills we have, that our educational institutions and training programs deem important, are not longer the skills that are most useful in the workplace. Coupled with this is growing insight into the difference between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills. To briefly summarise:

  • Hard Skills: are practical, knowledge-based, teachable skills such as programming, logic or comprehension (for example: legal discernment), calculation, foreign-language proficiency, and so on.
  • Soft Skills: are subtler and less metrically observable skills, such as people or interpersonal skills (like communication), leadership, time-management, or adaptability.

When it comes to recruitment, even candidates with exceptional hard skills need soft skills in order to stand out and succeed. In fact, acording to a 2018 Linkedin survey, 57% of leaders say soft skills are more important than hard skills.

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In previous knowledge and information-based economies, Hard Skills are deemed more valuable, hence the societal bias towards Accountants, Bankers, Lawyers, Doctors, Pilots and other similar professions. However, we are now entering an era of transformation where complex financial and calculations can be handled effortlessly by an app; where artificial intelligence can use logic to discriminate in legal proceedings; where robotic surgeons are more precise than human ones; where the computers can diagnose ailments, using machine-learning, to far greater accuracy than traditional GPs; and where planes and cars are self-driving. We need to shift our focus.

Am Wright, Managing Partner at IBM Talent & Transformation said in Market Insider:

“Organizations are facing mounting concerns over the widening skills gap and tightened labor markets with the potential to impact their futures as well as worldwide economies. Yet while executives recognize severity of the problem, half of those surveyed admit that they do not have any skills development strategies in place to address their largest gaps.

And the tactics the study found were most likely to close the skills gap the fastest are the tactics companies are using the least. New strategies are emerging to help companies reskill their people and build the culture of continuous learning required to succeed in the era of AI.”

I think this is an incredible observation. Though these companies recognise the severity of the problem, fully half don’t have a strategy to address it. And those that do have a strategy are, perhaps, using the wrong ones, or least-efficient at best. “The Enterprise Guide to Closing the Skills Gap” lays out IBV’s program and strategy for businesses to better manage talent and close the skills gap. To briefly summarise the step-by-step strategy:

  • Holistic approach: The core recommendation of the report is to take a holistic approach, focusing on development in multiple areas, but personalised to each individual. This is interesting, because previously, business have been built upon singular expertise in a chosen field. Accountants handle finance. Customer Service handle customers. There’s no overlap. But by taking a holistic approach, you encourage every member of your team to see the bigger organisational picture, which in turn fosters collaboration.
  • Create educational journeys for employees: Learning is a priority, and they recommend customising the educational / training program to each employee, based on their current role, aspirations, experience, and skillset. This comes back to the old-but-gold fable of the CFO and the CEO. The CFO approaches the CEO, who wants to start training his staff. The CFO says: “But what if we spend all this money training these people and they leave?” To which the CEO responds: “What if we don’t train them and they stay?” It’s a powerful insight into how important it is to develop people. Growth is healthy, and leaders should look to encourage not suppress it.
  • Ecosystem: Leverage technology, opportunities, and learning from partners and collaborators in order to fuel these educational journeys for employees. It also recommends sharing talent with partners, doing away with the old-school approach of hoarding good people.
  • Experiential learning: Educational institutions and training courses are no longer always the only, or indeed optimum, way to learn. Peer-to-peer learning through experience days and cross-departmental skill sets can provide great opportunities for hands-on practice served up in the flow of work. Particularly key to this is diversity in the teams. Online learning is another way to reinforce this.
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I think that all of these points have merit, but I would like to go a little deeper. Underpinning all of these is a word unspoken in IBV’s report; that word is adaptability. Leveraging technology, learning-through-experience, collaborating across teams, taking a holistic approach — all of these are really are part of an adaptability journey. It’s my belief that adaptability is going to become the number-one employability factor. Not only that, but the number one success-factor for pretty much any venture. I’m not the only one who thinks this. Adaptability was listed as one of the five essential characteristics required of people looking to join the Mars One space program. LinkedIn placed adaptability as one of the top-five Soft Skills sought by employers in 2018.

So, understanding what adaptability is, and how it feeds into strategies for closing the skills gap, has become paramount. At AQai, we have created a holistic measure of AQ (adaptability quotient), powered by machine-learning. IBV recommend a ‘holistic approach’ to learning, and this is exactly how we approached creating their metric, recognising that adaptability functions across three key dimensions: Ability (our learned adaptability skills - How and to what degree do I adapt?), Character (our adaptability style determined by personality and other innate factors - Who adapts and why?), and Environment (which can help or hinder adaption - When does someone adapt to what degree?). Adaptability is not one skill; it is constituted of a number of learned, inherited, and environmental factors.

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IBV’s report prioritises learning. AQai’s model of AQ also identifies learning as a key aspect of the adaptability journey through the sub-dimension of Learning Drive. For more information on Learning Drive, you can check out my other article on the four-key success abilities of AQ. However, it’s worth mentioning that just as important as learning is unlearning: our ability to let go of redundant knowledge and skills.

If we are to address the problem of the skills gap, we must not only ask the question of what should we be teaching people but what should we NOT be teaching people? This indicates to me educational overhaul, but we cannot become reliant on governments or national institutions to act fast enough in this era of light-speed change. We must become proactive (another sub-dimension of AQ Character), and take the initiative. Whether you are a manager with control over large numbers of staff, or someone working at a ground-level, we can all influence the people around us and inspire positive change.

And positive change is coming. It might be hard to see, given the bombardment of negativity news outlets supply us with on a daily basis. But it is there. Technology has created problems in the world (or rather, we have used technology for ill-means) but it may also provide solutions to those problems. Adaptai aims to make adaptability, and deeper understanding of AQ, accessible to everyone, “ensuring no one is left behind in the fastest period of change in history”.

In a way, this comes back to another old adage: Give a person a fish, and they eat for a day. Give them a fishing rod and show them how to use it, and they might eat for a lifetime. If we can teach people how to adapt: how to change, how to unlearn the redundancies and pick up new skills swiftly and painlessly, then we might just empower a generation to eat for the rest of their lives.

It is the gap between the known and the unknown, the certain and uncertain, the gap between today and tomorrow, between past and future. With strong adaptability you can face and thrive in any challenge.

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