Skills For Future Success in a Disruptive World of Work

My dad retired as a Library Science professional soon after which the profession of Library management was transformed by digital forces. With the rise of digital content, we now needed different kind of librarians who could help us walk through this maze of information and find what we need, not just deal with only physical books. The way libraries are structured and run has completely changed (and it continues to evolve).

In past 15 years, we have seen number of businesses being disrupted or transformed completely by digital forces. This may accelerate in future with the continuous rise in automation.

Experts predict that we are heading towards a “jobless future” and that it is both an opportunity and a threat. Even if we don’t think too much about what happens over a long frame of time, we can still agree that what bought us here (technical skills, expertise etc) may not be sufficient to take us towards success in a volatile future. What skills do we need more of as we head into future?

I read an interesting (and long) post by Janna Q. Anderson titled “The Robot Takeover is Already Here where she says –

“Skills young people should be learning to be prepared for a career in 2020 include:

  • The ability to concentrate, to focus deeply.
  • The ability to distinguish between the “noise” and the message in the ever-growing sea of information.
  • The ability to do public problem solving through cooperative work.
  • The ability to search effectively for information and to be able to discern the quality and veracity of the information one finds and then communicate these findings well.
  • Synthesizing skills (being able to bring together details from many sources).
  • The capability to be futures-minded through formal education in the practices of horizon-scanning, trends analysis and strategic foresight.”

Here are a few skills that I would like to add along for succeeding now and in future.

  • The ability to learn constantly in a self-directed mode
  • Social Intelligence and ability to connect with people beyond geographical barriers virtually in a deep/meaningful way and collaborate.
  • Adaptive mindset to evolve the thinking and learning to keep pace with the pace of changes around us.
  • Interdisciplinary thinking (more here)
  • Critical thinking (more here)

“The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not in fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates

The future that comes to us (and generations to come) will always be uncertain and outside of our control. The key to navigate through uncertainty is to focus inwards on developing agility in skills, learning and mindset – all of which are completely in our control.

Update 29.07.2016 – And here is a sketch note version of Fast Company’s article “These Will Be The Top Jobs In 2025 (And The Skills You’ll Need To Get Them)

Fluid Learning


“The tools of the mind become burdens when the environment which made them necessary no longer exists.” – Henry Bergson

When solving problems, we love standard solutions and tools. What worked for us in the past becomes our tool to solve problems in the future. A psychologist named Raymond Cattell termed this as “crystallized intelligence” – ability to use learned knowledge and experience. It is much like water frozen in to pieces of ice. It cannot flow.

But, we cannot solve problems of today with techniques of yesterday. With rapid changes all around us, it is even more crucial that we pay attention to “fluid intelligence” – to analyze and solve problems in novel situation without excessively relying on past knowledge or experiences, to observe the patterns and think critically. 

When it comes to learning constantly, we need both. While driving, we need the rear view mirror to avoid accidents but we can’t drive forward only looking at the rear view mirror. Fixed learning and experiences of the past equips us better to handle uncertainty but in itself, they cannot help us navigate the uncertainty. For that, we need an ability to learn, unlearn and relearn quickly in line with the given context. We need an ability to not let past experience interfere with the possibilities. We need to learn to navigate without a map – or create a map as you go along. We need a keen observation of patterns that emerge as we apply the learning. When we do this consistently, learning flows and grows.

The tools of our mind are fixed, but the environment is constantly evolving.

Our tools and methods of learning have to evolve too!


Also Read: Specialization is a Journey, Not a Destination

Dealing With Analysis Paralysis Versus Death by Instinct

When it comes to decision making, there are two extremes.

First one is analysis paralysis. Large organizations, multiple layers of management and risk averse culture breeds over analysis of facts, data and information before making a decision. Too much analysis paralyzes progress. Even when progress is made, it is often reactive and slow.

Analysis paralysis is a sign of over-management and is, quite clearly, a huge waste in many organizations large and small.  Analysis, reflection and sufficient critical thinking is definitely required to make better informed decisions. It provides direction to the process of decision making. But when search for direction stalls forward movement, it is a waste. In a constantly changing and fast environment, analysis paralysis can be a real disabler.

The other extreme is death by instinct. At this end of the spectrum, decisions are taken on the fly, instinctively without any systematic study or thinking. Any failure, small or big, is a huge waste of time, energy and efforts.

We need a balance between these two extremes. Between the rational and the emotional.

We need a system where internal checks ensure that folks think through their ideas before deciding.

We need just enough analysis to have all information at hand to avoid major disasters.

Once we decide based on just enough analysis, we need short bursts of implementation – pilot runs may be, to gain early feedback on the decision.

We then need constant loop of diagnosis and realignment of our approaches.

Managing anything is never a binary process but often something that swings between the two extremes. The key is to strike a balance and draw a line between the two depending on problem at hand and the context of the decision.


In the Pic: Shooting the empty beer bottles, Kufri, Shimla, India – via my photostream at Flickr.

Specialization is a Journey, Not a Destination

I recently read this amazing quote from Robert A Heinlein which nicely captures the essence of my own belief about learning and specialization.

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, fight efficiently, die gallantly.

Specialization is for insects.”

Let me share a story of my friend who was laid off in the 2002 dot com bust. He worked on a technology that was on its way to obscurity. After he was asked to leave, my friend walks up to his boss and talks about what organization needed then. Boss talked about a customer who wanted people who could work on a shiny new programming language. My friend took up the challenge to retool himself on this new technology in one month with a condition that if he failed at client interview, he will walk out voluntarily.

He worked very hard to learn the new language. Before he completed one month of his notice period, he not only cleared the interview with a customer but also landed on foreign shores for an onsite opportunity.

From a layoff situation to an exciting new possibility in a very tough economic environment is a truly inspiring story of our ability to reinvent ourselves.

We live in times when change is not only constant but unnervingly rapid and our ability to learn constantly is the single biggest differentiator. My friend demonstrated learning agility as a response to a tough situation. But we, in this hyper-connected world, don’t need to wait for any rude shocks. We have glorious opportunity because knowledge is democratized and ubiquitous. Connecting meaningfully with others has never been so easy, provided we are intentional about it.

Specialization is not a destination but a journey. Of constant learning. Of applying our lessons in unique business contexts. Of evolving our comprehension and connecting the dots. Of sharing our lessons generously. Of doing something about what we know. Of picking up new skills. Of adopting and adapting.  Of staying hungry and foolish forever.

I have seen so many specialists who cannot let go of what they know already. When fixed knowledge is the only hammer you have, every problem you encounter will start looking like a nail.

The key is to NOT let that happen!