Diverse thinking is key to surviving the future skills crisis

Over 120 million workers worldwide will need to be retrained in the next three years due to artificial intelligence, according to IBM. This is a now-familiar story, one in which people with mental agility and flexibility will have a huge advantage.

The good news is that these skills are buildable. Indeed, new research shows precisely why some are more able to spot opportunities than others, and why some are more inclined to develop new skills rather than doubling down on existing ones.

One study that throws particular light on these issues was conducted by Michael Housman, a labour economist, who was working on a project to figure out why some call centre workers perform better than others. At first, he couldn’t find an answer. Nothing seemed to compute.“We had data on 50,000 people who had taken a 45-minute online job assessment and who were subsequently hired,” he said. “We examined every aspect of the assessment to see if it held clues about longevity and performance. But we kept drawing a blank.”

But then one of Housman’s research assistants had an insight. The team had data on the web browsers – such as Safari or Firefox – that had been used by the applicants to fill out the assessment forms. Might the choice of web browser predict performance? To Housman, it seemed unlikely. Surely, this was just a matter of personal preference.

Yet the results were startling. Those who had filled out their assessments on Firefox or Chrome stayed in their jobs 15% longer than those who used Safari or Internet Explorer. They also had higher productivity, higher sales, happier customers and shorter call times. “It was one of the most emphatic sets of results we had found,” Housman said.

Some people have the tendency to accept the world as it is. They stick with the status quo. Others see the world as changeable. They wonder if there are better ways of doing things.

What was going on? “It took us a while to figure it out,” Housman said. “The key is that Internet Explorer and Safari are pre-installed. PCs come with Explorer as part of the package, and Macs come with Safari. These are the defaults. To use them, you just need to turn on the computer. Chrome and Firefox are different. To use these pieces of software, you have to be curious enough to check if there are better options out there. Then, you have to download and install them.”

It wasn’t the software itself that was driving these differences in performance; it was what the choices revealed about differences in psychology. Some people have the tendency to accept the world as it is. They stick with the status quo. Others see the world as changeable. They wonder if there are better ways of doing things and if so, act upon them.

Remember, these were call centre workers in retail and hospitality. Such jobs often have scripts that are used to deal with consumer enquiries. It is easy to stick to a script. But every now and again, you meet a situation that isn’t covered by the script. Do you just stick to what you have always done? Or do you find a new way of solving a problem, or selling an idea?

This ability to question the status quo can be developed, a point made by the psychologist, Adam Grant. A good way to see how is to consider that immigrants are, on average, more creative and entrepreneurial. This is not because immigrants are genetically superior, but because experiencing different cultures provides greater latitude to question the conventions. One study found that the vast majority of countries report higher entrepreneurism among immigrants than natives, especially in high-growth ventures.

This isn’t about immigration per se, course. After all, a fresh climate doesn’t have to be geographical. Charles Darwin alternated between research in zoology, psychology, botany and geology. This did not diminish his creative potential but enhanced it. Why? Because it gave him the chance to see his specialism from the outside and to fuse ideas from diverse branches of science. One study found that the most consistently original scientists switched topics, on average, a remarkable 43 times in their first hundred published papers.

Do you just stick to what you have always done? Or do you find a new way of solving a problem, or selling an idea?

Labour experts predict that the children of today will have as many as a dozen jobs, the majority of which haven’t yet been invented. In a fast-moving world, we will need to master not merely the art of invention but of personal reinvention.

Research led by Keith Stanovich of the University of Toronto has helped to develop the Actively Open Minded scale (AOM). The questionnaire asks people if they agree or disagree with statements like “A person should always consider new possibilities”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who score high on this scale are better at coming up with ideas, combatting biases, and more.

Perhaps the crucial point is that by opening ourselves up to diverse ideas, we not only detect new opportunities but diversify our minds. That is not to say that we don’t need specialist expertise; quite the reverse. We need both conceptual depth, and conceptual distance. We need to be able to understand the status quo, but also to question it.

Indeed, in a world set to be serially disrupted, this is likely to become the most precious of skills.

By Matthew Syed

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