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Future Skills 2020 and the Implications for Professional Development

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Over the weekend I ran across an interesting report in The Atlantic from the for-profit University of Phoenix. It looks at what they consider to be the six major drivers of change and the skills that will be necessary to thrive in this environment. 

Six Drivers of Change

According to the report, there are six drivers of change:

  • Extreme Longevity--an aging population worldwide.
  • Rise of Smart Machines and Systems--workplace automation is nudging workers out of rote, repetitive tasks.
  • Computational World--a massive increase in sensors and processing power that turns just about anything into a programmable system, requiring us to see patterns and use data in ways we never have before. 
  • New Media Ecology--the rise of communication tools, which require new literacies beyond text. 
  • Super-structured Organizations--social technologies drive new forms of production and value creation.
  • Globally Connected World--increased global interconnectivity puts diversity and adaptability at the center of organizational operations. 

The 10 Skills

Based on these drivers, the report then suggest that 10 new skills will be required:

  • Sense-making--ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed.
  • Social Intelligence--ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions. 
  • Novel and Adaptive Thinking--proficiency at thinking and coming up with responses and solutions that go beyond rote, rules-based thinking. 
  • Cross-cultural Competency--ability to operate in different cultural settings. 
  • Computational Thinking--ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning. 
  • New Media Literacy--ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media and to leverage these media for persuasive communication. 
  • Transdisciplinarity--literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines.
  • Design Mindset--ability to represent and develop tasks for desired outcomes.
  • Cognitive Load Management--ability to discriminate and filter information for importance and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques.
  • Virtual Collaboration--ability to work productively, drive engagement and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team. 

First question here, then is do we see the need for these skills? Based on my own observations, reading and anecodotal experience, I would say that these are right on the money. I've already been seeing increased need for these abilities in my own work and the work that others are doing, although not necessarily seeing increased skill levels. 

Implications for Professional Development

So what does all this mean for professional development? Donna Svei points out that it means 1) learn to learn and 2) learn something useful to someone with a checkbook. I agree completely, but have a few additional thoughts. 

First, I continue to believe that we are going to have to transform our notions of who we'll be working for. Increasingly we are going to be freelancers, looking to sell our skills to companies on a contract basis. A few years ago I wrote a post, "Who's in the Market for Learning" in which I quoted some stats on the rise of freelancers. The recession has only accelerated this process as many employers are finding that when they do start to add to their workforce again, contract workers make more sense. This means having to think like an entrepreneur when it comes to developing these skills. 

Two recent articles also have me wondering which is better--becoming a generalist or becoming a specialist in one or more of these areas? 

USA Today reports that employers are looking for generalists who are skilled across a variety of disciplines. In the same week, I also ran across this Harvard Business Review article on the rise of hyper-specialization, suggesting that the way to go is to focus on becoming super-specialized in particular niches. 

It may be that all workers will have to develop reasonable competency in each of these areas, but there will also be a need for workers who are super-skilled in only one or two of the skill areas. This hyper-specialization may offer the best opportunities for freelance/contract workers who are able to apply these skills in particular industries or occupations. 

What are your thoughts? Do you agree that these skills will be necessary in the future? What impact do you think that will have on your professional development? Is it about becoming a generalist or a "hyper-specialist"? 


I'm running two free Positive Professional Development Camps on July 26 and 28. Check out this post for more information and to sign up. There are two spots left in each session, so I'd encourage you to sign up quickly! And if you can't attend, go ahead and fill out the form anyway, just to let me know you're interested so I can see about scheduling additional sessions. 


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Great post and food for thought.

When I originally read the piece you reference about hyper-specialization, I was worried about what that means for an already isolated world of work, turning knowledge work into Henry Ford's assembly line. On the other hand, I do like the idea of shucking the tasks that I neither like nor am trained to do and I think this would appeal to others as well.

Which is why I was excited about the University of Phoenix report. It seems to me like you do need a very clear and ever more narrow specialization, but you also have to just be "good" and smart in general, which is what I read a lot of these skills as (sense making, social intelligence, novel thinking, etc.)

I think the real trick and revolution in the workforce will be teaching people how to seek out their work (not specifically jobs) and how to manage their own employment/marketing themselves (hello social media!) etc.

Thanks, Savannah--agreed that focusing on our greatest talents may be a good idea in terms of our careers. I've certainly found that the more I can focus on my "core competencies," the better.

And 110% agree about people needing to think differently about their own career management. We need to be much more entrepreneurial about what we do, how and what we learn, how we market ourselves, etc. if we want to stay ahead of things. It's going to be a challenge, but completely do-able.

Hi Michele; Good topic!
1. Most of the above skills seem to imply a generalist approach to me, but the complexity many people face also requires hyper-specialization. I think there is a strong case to strive for a balance between a generalist or a hyper-specialist approach; the T shaped individual.
2. I also think communication is mostly missing from this list. I was recently speaking to my wife over some problematic situations at her job. There was a case to be made that different individual were holding different business models in their mind. This seems basic, but models that were common 10 years ago have changed and it's easy for people to fail to fully understand how many of their beliefs have failed to change along with situations on the ground (so to speak). Communication in this case is critical because change is has been so pervasive and management structures still tend to be siloed and hierarchical. I'd say that things like sense-making, design thinking and collaboration do not account for much without communication.

Hi Howard--thanks for the great comment! RE: "communication" skills, I tend to see those as embedded in some of the other skills. For example, cross-cultural competency is about "operating" in different cultural contexts, which to me includes being able to communicate effectively. New media literacy is about using social media tools to communicate effectively. Virtual collaboration is about communicating outside of a face-to-face setting. So although communication isn't explicitly stated as a separate skill, I see it as being an integral part of several of the other skills. My thought anyway. . .

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