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Skills ain’t wot they used to be

March 27, 2012

Crystal Jones, from the MPower Group, wrote a blog on the subject ‘Education vs Reality‘, in which she questioned the relevance of today’s school and university education to the needs of modern business.  She highlights in particular skills such as project management, teamwork, leadership or handling ‘difficult’ people.

I enjoyed reading Crystal’s thoughts, although I think the challenge she highlights has existed throughout history; there are commentators in most eras who complain that formal education fails to prepare people for the future or for the roles they need to play in society of the time.

One might argue that educational basics are more about creating a framework of knowledge and a capability to learn, rather than the skills associated with deploying that learning. After all, what is the point of being a great communicator if you have nothing of substance to communicate (yes, I know, in that case you become a politician); what likelihood is there that you would be a valued member of a project team if you did not have in-depth subject matter knowledge to contribute etc.

The world could not operate with everyone being – or aspiring to be – a leader. Indeed, there are many who would argue that the US ‘problem’ (if it has one) is the inability of today’s emerging workers to subjugate themeselves to the disciplines of leadership and followership. They all believe they are great communicators and – even worse -have really interesting things to say. Their parents and the schools exhibit far too much respect for their vacuous ideas and sub-standard work because it is so important not to undermine self-esteem.  And this has created a generation that is convinced about its own abilities, that there is no need to apply effort to learning, that their in-built ‘skills’ are sufficient in themselves to merit high-paying employment.

Maybe Seth Godin (whose work Crystal references) is completely wrong in his analysis that the education system is outdated. Perhaps it is the tendency to impose too little discipline, too little expectation that each individual must actually prove their merits and too little of the substantive context that allows people to flourish in the world of work.

A final point. In the past, most people wanted to join big companies or work for large local employers. Today, according to The Economist, about 65% want to be ‘entrepreneurs’. So that suggests there is in fact already a massive change in aspiration – and maybe it isn’t the education system at fault, but the wider social infrastructure that is failing to free up all that talent to communicate, lead and manage projects.

But before we leap to that conclusion, it is important to understand what they mean by the word ‘entrepreneur’. For most, it means being self-employed, working from home and not having the discipline of a regular job. So what it actually indicates is that we are perhaps raising new generations that are far more self-indulgent and wanting to work on their own terms. Quite where that is taking us, I don’t know – but it doesn’t suggest that teamwork or leadership are especially big on the agenda. As for communication, I am sure Facebook will take care of that!

  1. Tim, interesting blog.

    I’d add the thought that there is another kind of ‘leadership’, what I’d call personal leadership. This is less about leading teams of people, more about knowing what you are about in the world and having a general direction of travel (knowing what you want from life). I think this is often missing. This is not primarily about material rewards and fame (the current UK trend towards youngsters wanting to be instant pop music stars and footballers), but about wanting to do something worthwhile.

    For our profession, I think we all should be asking ‘how do we excite youngsters to want to join us in the business world, and how do we show them that commercial and contract management puts you at the cutting edge of business, where you can really make a difference to the outcome’. I believe that is why we all do this, because of the opportunity to make a difference. I’d be keen to hear views from others on how we might set about creating that kind of excitement about entering our profession, and aspiring to rise to the top.

    As for teamwork, we know (we have many examples!) how much more we achieve when we collaborate, rather than struggling alone. How might we collaborate on this subject?


  2. I would suggest that there is a growing gap between student attitudes and workplace reality based on the difference between two verbs: “To be” and “to do”.

    Thinking back to our schoolboy days, our grandparents probably asked most of us what we wanted to “be” when we grew up. Fast forward to university and you would see a young man or woman looking forwarding to “being in business” or “becoming a doctor”. What does that really mean?

    In the US at least, a majority of law students have no significant experience in a legal setting before registering for law school, which is for us a post-graduate degree. We only saw images of lawyers in the media and heard stories from friends and family. We didn’t truly understand how little the average lawyer earns compared to the big city, big firm fatcats or how hard he must work to have even that success. In other words, we had only vague ideas of the “doing” part of the legal profession.

    Unfortunately, I can say for certain that my law school experience did not truly prepare me for “being” a lawyer or “doing” legal work. Knowledge is gained slice by slice. Concepts are not connected across disciplines. Most nationally renowned schools emphasize theory over practical coursework. Writing is taught, but probably not well enough. Courses do not effectively train and test students on the application of legal principles. Alternative learning exercises are not used. The primary learning method outside of the Socratic classroom is memorization; legal buzzwords take critical importance in exams. Courses like Contracts did not teach negotiation. There was not one class at UT Law when I was there about “how” to practice law in a firm or corporation. Visual learners will find little accommodation. A new graduate will borrow money to pay for a training course – after law school – just to prepare for the Bar exam.

    I realize that this is only one discipline, but it seems clear to me that academia has not built its program based on an understanding of the actual market. Compare this practice to a corporation that designs widgets in a way that the CEO likes, but is not particularly well suited to his market. We would lambast the CEO for his failure after he was fired. Why do we not take the same path with regard to our university system?

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