Have you got the skills? #TagTeamBlog2

Here it is folks, the second Tag Team/Co-blog from myself and my “spiritual partner in HR”, the one and only Mr Perry Timms (@PerryTimms). This time we’re discussing skills and to resolve the UK conundrum of skills being viewed as a social and economic panacea (a point raised by Keep & Mayhew back in 2010). No prizes for sticking it out until the end, there’s some important stuff in here. Let us know what you think by commenting, or preferably via Twitter.

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Helen: Recently Perry, my thoughts have been crystallising around the issue of skills. I say “issue”, but is there really one? A lot of people seem to think there is. If performance targets aren’t met, we must have a lack of skills. If the company isn’t connecting with its customers, there’s a skills gap. In fact, the productivity and success of the whole country is hinged on skills alone. Well, that’s what the government tells us anyway. So the issue appears to be that skills are seemingly both inherently desirable yet also elusive. Otherwise skills is the answer to too many questions.

The first problem is that there is no universally agreed definition of what “skills” are actually being referred to. We might refer to it as the ability to “do something” and to do it well. To have expertise and ability, to master a task or profession. That all sounds very well and good, but how does one measure whether someone possesses the right skills? This leads to the second problem, in that formal qualifications have become in essence the only national measure of whether the people of the UK “have skills”.

While it is important for both the economy and individuals that they gain a decent education, part of the puzzle is missing. And that is that skills are gained, and honed, via experience. Organisations are denounced for reducing their “spend per head” training budgets during economic downturn, an action labelled as short-sighted and damaging. Yet, these statistics mask the work which goes on largely unnoticed, although it arguably has a greater impact on skills. I’m talking about “on-the-job” training, work shadowing and mentoring. In contrast these activities are low in cost, yet use a lot of the commodity that nobody seems to be willing to spare – time.

Finally, it needs to be accepted that “skills” are not the cure for every social and economic ill, nice as it would be to tie everything up in a neat little package. There are cultural issues and discrimination, as well as a lack of forward planning. Is there an answer? Well, if there is, then skills is only a small part of that. Perry?

Perry: Thanks Helen – my what a start!

I buy into a part of the skills argument.  My work on the edges of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills shows that we – as a nation – are lacking certain vocational skills in our “arsenal”.  That is damaging but I’m with you that to just label low skills as the cause for our productivity woes is too narrow, simplistic and potentially misleading.

Productivity is surely the appropriate application of skills with the appropriate tools, time and flow to result in a quality end product that is needed by, useful to and helpful for, people.

So to focus on skills only ignores the tools, the time and the flow element.  And by flow I mean this.  Research is showing that sustained periods of 3+ hours doing the same thing and then a break does NOT equal productive application.  Much has been written about 25 minute bursts; 5+ minutes of rest or social engagement, meditation or alternative application can result in those sprints seeing more productive application in speed, accuracy, quality, problem solving, ideas creation and more.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on Flow gives me a sense that he has the right scaffolding for us to think about design of human energy and application. That mix of enough skill and enough tension is what makes us tick.  Not oppressive tension, not faux tension, not overskilled or underskilled.

So my answer is to take a whole systems view on productivity; and skills is part of that equation. Human energy, process optimisation, variety, shorter bursts, connection to and from other parts of the chain of process, believing in what the company/work is all about – all critical factors.  To say we’re crap just because of skills is missing a lot of other factors.  We have skilled academics yet still we have a reading and writing deficit in this country which we shouldn’t have.  This basic skill is damaging people, our economic prospects and society writ large.

Your point on skills being applied through the active learning on the job is a good one and we all know that (as Michelle Parry-Slater calls it) injection education or sticking plaster learning isn’t enough. We hear great things about the Finnish education system; there are 2 self-organising schools I know of in Berlin and Boston that are getting great results from very-rounded, applied and energetic pupils.  I guess my hope here is that enter workplaces that capitalise on this rounded set of skills and not that they end up in a boxed-up dull-as-heck job where only 40% of them is being utilised.

It’s time to zoom out of the focus of this debate and look at all contributing factors WHILST tending to skills shortages – be they knowledge work related; leadership related or vocational elements.

So with that in mind, how do we do that?  How do we tune Governments, Researchers, Think Tanks, Analysts, Scientists, workplace experts, human behavioural experts and more into creating something more systemic in solving our productivity puzzle and not just blaming the skills quotient?  H – over to you.

Helen: I really like the phrase you use Perry “It’s time to zoom out of the focus of this debate” because basically at the moment we can’t see the wood, only one specific tree. However, a number of the bodies you mention there are mired in politics. Not just Governments and Think Tanks but some of the “experts” too, who must go with the current trend to a certain extent if they want to keep their jobs. “Skills” is a very popular soap box tool to leverage votes, and it’s one used pretty much universally (think Tony Blair with “Education, education and education”). If you want to prove a new idea works you need to divert attention and money from something else. Anyone who suggests a little bit of that budget for education/training could be put to better use elsewhere is going to be extremely unpopular.

I think the only way to gain some perspective is, going back to my original point, to start measuring the right things. In my opinion measuring the Return on Investment in any form of learning is very poorly done. Likewise, I think we’re a very hand to mouth society and have great difficulty in looking ahead and trying to predict what skills we might need in the future, where there might be shortfalls or over-supply and so on. Society generally values certain types of professions (based on earning potential and the manual job divide) over others, and therefore certain skills are treated as more valuable. What I am trying to say is that this intrinsic skills value does not reflect the requirement within our economy for those particular skills, leading to gluts and shortfalls in particular occupations. In addition, a system which focusses solely on educational attainment and rote learning, negates any natural ability, thereby reducing chances of achieving “flow” and optimal productivity. As you have pointed out Perry, they seem to have a better balance in some other countries, particularly Europe.

However, for the reasons outlined above I do not think we will ever change the education system or culture to any large extent. So for change we need to look to organisations and their human resources departments. You mention quite a lot of research Perry, which I believe organisations have not yet grasped, either because they haven’t seen enough proof or they’re too busy “doing the day job”. Hopefully by bringing research closer to the real world, that gap could be bridged. What do you think Perry?

Perry: You have a REALLY good point in the skills prediction lark – we’re seemingly way too reactive in this area and as one industry is closed down, it’s like there’s a convulsive reaction to how to reskill those most impacted upon when we should be looking a future skills needs and trying to create overlap, flexibility and portability for people.  We have to get better at this.  I’m sure it’s not easy but where’s all the people we’re training in the art of production using 3-D printing?  Where’s all the programmers cracking the insurance and legal codes en route to automating a lot of claims, disputes and evidence assessment/evaluation?  Anyway it’s something we should pay more attention to.

So onto your specific tag to me – the research is out there but people aren’t finding it. I often quote Clay Shirky “it’s not information overload that’s the problem, it’s one of filtering”.  Even with this in mind, it’s not even filtering to many folks – they’re out of the loop: disconnected from that great research and in a bit of a bubble.

“Where do I research?” they might say. Not just Googling but Harvard Business Review, the World Economic Forum, Twitter hashtags, the online HR journals, each other, conferences, blogs, TED, books and book referral mechanisms like GoodReads.com, FlipBoard app; I could go on.  And this is without reference to anything coming from academia via reports and further academic study programmes.

Maybe – just maybe – there’s an emphasis on “those who know” to share with “those who don’t” here too?  So instead of being pompous or exclusive about what you know, just shamelessly share it in as many ways as you can to bring others with you?

Instead of just telling people what we know, we let them know how come we know what we do and how that helps us perhaps?

It’s like these blogs Helen – we’re trying to do something different to capture some imagination. There’s something in what Richard Westney recently blogged – that it’s either a bit saturated or the same old voices, and in what Sukh Pabial said – that it is what you make it.  It being the commentary, narrative, stories, research and insight into the future and better; innovation and great ideas; experiments and opportunities.

So my deduction here – considering where we started – is don’t believe all the hype: Research well and you’ll be able to form your own opinions, actions and ideas to succeed and get us out of this sticky situation.

Last thoughts from you Helen?

Helen: Just that I think we’ve got to a good point here Perry, that it’s about sharing learning, discussing, and throwing ideas around. One thing I think may be missing from your list (which I know wasn’t exhaustive) is professional associations. It’s something that connects a lot of us, and really there is an expectation that they should be at the forefront of learning and innovation in our field. Not only that, but disseminating that learning to those who need to know.  The requirement of any effective workspace is two-way conversation and mutual respect. With any sort of divide, be that political or otherwise, it simply does not work. As you say, “those who know” should know better.

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Thanks for making it this far. We hope you enjoyed reading our latest #TeamTeamBlog as much as did writing it.

Helen & Perry

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