In 2015, The World Economic Forum identified a predicted shift in desired work skills in the five years from 2015 to 2020. The future capability needs they observed moved from what might be thought of as technical or role-based skills towards what are usually considered to be soft skills – things like communication and empathy.
Today, such an observation scarcely raises an eyebrow as we’ve all become terribly familiar with the predictions of futurists who constantly remind us that AI, robotics, algorithms, outsourcing and off-shoring are poised to take over routine, repetitive or dangerous jobs. This renders the retraining and reskilling our workforces the new normal.
Yet despite these constant warnings, change still seems to take us by surprise and sends the parents of school aged children, HR directors and executive trainers into a mild panic.
In 2018, Merlijn Venus, Daan Stam and Daan van Knippenberg, from the Universities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Drexel University, published the results of their research in the Harvard Business Review.
Essentially, they made the case that if you want people to embrace change, emphasise what will remain the same. In other words, familiarity creates a sense of confidence and competence when it comes to change strategies. So how might this apply to change and future proofing your skills?
Our own research, interviewing hundreds of leaders, educators, futurists, economists and thought leaders around the world has led us to similar conclusions. What we came to realise is that most of us view change in a very limited way.
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We tend to focus on What is changing, or What needs changing, but few of us spend nearly enough time looking at What is unchanging. To fully future proof ourselves, we need to be conscious of all these 3 spheres of change.
It turns out that the unchanging is critical to future proofing our skills. Of course, certain technical skills, things like coding for instance, will be useful and in demand for a period, but as Artificial Intelligence learns how to code itself more quickly and more efficiently than any human being is capable of, these skills too will tend to fade like fashion.
So rather than focusing only on current trends or trying to predict the future, we chose in our research to compare these skills, roles, traits and characteristics with those that have always been necessary and make an assessment on which skills, if any, might be evergreen.
As much as possible, we looked across different epochs, cultures, industries and fields of expertise and discovered that there are certain functions that are universally identified as always being necessary, useful or at least a pleasant investment of our time. These skills clustered into three key areas: Creativity, Communication and Control.
Creativity skills include such capabilities as meaning making, insight generation, problem solving, a capacity to transform a raw resource, such as time or knowledge, into a more valuable format and cognitive agility.
Communication skills were described as the ability to generate influence, to engender trust, to translate information from one context to another and a facility to build collaborative teams across diverse areas of expertise and cultures. Control skills included things such as self-control, resource management and allocation, prioritisation, social order and an ability to implement – in other words, to execute and be decisive independent of preparedness or what might generally be considered adequate information.
Of course, as technology continues to evolve, new technical skill sets, and capabilities will demand our short-term attention, however, if we’re to invest a significant amount of time, money and workforce into training for the future and want to truly future proof our skills, it makes sense that we should invest in what will be forever.
Kieran Flanagan and Dan Gregory are experts in leading change and are the co-authors of Forever Skills and co-founders of The Impossible Institute.