We are all going to have to learn new skills, this year, next year and every year for the rest of our working life, learn new skills and find new ways to apply old skills. One could even say that one of the foundational skills going forward is to learn how to grow new skills and to reapply old skills. This is true for the individual, teams, organizations and entire societies.
How to do we get to be successful at reskilling?
It begins with our foundational skills. Foundational skills are the skills we build on to acquire applied skills. They start with the three R’s of reading and writing an arithmetic, even if the meaning of these have evolved.
Reading includes not just reading words on a page (or a screen) but the deeper skills behind good reading like pattern recognition, critical enquiry and empathy. We need to be able to read many things beyond words – patterns in data, visualizations, how systems connect, even emotional responses.
The same is true of writing. It needs to mean more than just writing sentences. One obvious extension is writing code. I would take this beyond the kinds of writing we can do with a keyboard to include sketching and basic design. As our tools become more flexible and powerful we need to have better control of them, and writing (widely imagined) is one of the main ways we can convey our thoughts and emotions and control our tools.
Then there is arithmetic, or more accurately math and mathematical logic. All the buzz these days about deep learning and artificial intelligence, it is mostly clever and programmatic applications of math.
This is just one way of thinking about foundational skills. Another is to become aware of how we learn and how the people around us learn. Most of us do not spend much time thinking about how other people learn, but this may be the best way we can help our team members, and therefore ourselves, to higher levels of performance. Learning skills are foundational skills.
The other broad set of foundational skills could be called bodies of knowledge – a broad understanding of the principles, facts, ways of reasoning and communicating within a discipline or profession. Scientific knowledge is foundational, but so is knowledge of an art or body of literature. Anything that can be applied broadly to many different problems is a kind of foundational skill and can be used to build new skills.
Foundational skills are just one input into understanding our potential skills, necessary but in most cases not sufficient. Most of us will learn new skills most effectively when we have relevant associated skills. Associate skills are skills that are frequently found together in the same person. When a person has several skills commonly found together it is often easy to pick up the others.
Here are some examples. A person who already has the skills of R (a popular programming language for data analysis), Data Analysis and SQL (the most common way to query relational databases) and who has foundational skills like Statistics, Probability and Linear Algebra will have a head start in learning Machine Learning.
Design Thinking is another popular skill these days (the LinkedIn Group has almost 100,000 members). There are many people who have Design Thinking as a skill put don’t use the term. Take a person with the foundational skills of Critical Enquiry, Empathy and Visual Languages, who also knows how to use Adobe InDesign, understands Agile Development (a software development methodology that is being extended to many other areas) and who has a good knowledge of Architecture. This person can almost certainly claim Design Thinking as a skill.
There is one thing missing though. A person can have a good set of associated skills, strong foundational skills, and still fail to learn new skills. Learning and applying a new skill takes effort. Effort requires motivation. People will only acquire new skills if they are motivated. The best motivation is perhaps a combination of curiosity and ambition. People who are naturally curious and who want to succeed. Sales thought leader Jill Konrath has identified curiosity as one of the top skills of the most effective salespeople (See 5 Surprising Statistics About Top Sellers).
When a person’s native motivation is not enough, there is always fear and greed. Fear of losing a job or missing opportunities. Greed to earn more money or win more social status.
Social pressure is one of the strongest motivators. This is why it is so important for organizations to cultivate a culture or learning, to make investments in new skills, and to give people opportunities to apply their potentials. Skills that are not applied will always remain potential and even the potential will eventually evaporate.
One of the most important jobs of talent leadership is to give people hope. People who have hope will perform at higher levels and will help other people do so as well. Knowing they have potential skills and will be given the opportunity to develop and apply them is one of the best ways to motivate a workforce.
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