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Staying relevant in a VUCA world

July 6, 2014

For quite some time now, all those who are responsible for or concerned about Talent and Leadership have been struggling with the challenge of developing leaders for a VUCA world. The ability to predict potential in a world that is volatile and ever-changing is questionable – how do you define a set of skills or traits for a future that is uncertain? And then how do you develop them, not knowing if they will even be relevant by the time you get there?

And if you are a professional, then the same question holds true for you. How will you continue to be relevant in a mercurial future? Time was, the Peter Principle took a few years to catch up with a professional; today, it can happen in a month! How then, will you avoid irrelevance? 

I had a chat with Abhijit Bhaduri, CLO of Wipro and one man who I think has an incisive intellect and a solid opinion about the above dilemmas. After 2 chats, I realized what he said was valuable and requested him to share one of his blogs on the subject. As always, he doesn’t disappoint. Here’s his insightful take on what individuals and nations need to do.

Abhijit, thanks a ton for this. 

In another twenty years more than a billion people will be more than 65. The greying population will largely be in the developed world. The old people to working age population will get severely skewed in many countries. According to The Economist, by 2035 Japan will have 69 old people for every 100 in the 24-65 age group. Germany will have 66 and America will have 44.

Across the rich world the well educated people are working longer than the less skilled. In the age group of 62-74 in America, 65% people with a professional degree are still working compared to only 32% of people who didn’t go to college. The incomes of the highly skilled are rising at the expense of the unskilled. Ironically the employment rates are falling among younger unskilled people.

The source of labor will have to come from Asia and Africa which will in 2035 have 22 people over 65 for every hundred who are in the 24-65 age group. While we keep flaunting India‘s demographic dividend we conveniently ignore the dropping rates of employability with passing year. Less than one out of four MBAs is employable. One out of five engineers can claim to be employable. Only one in ten graduates is employable. What are we missing?

Historically, colleges ensured employability. The gap between what the employer needed and what the new hire came in with was met by mandating a certain number of training days for the employees. The world was slow to change. Hence the skills that a person picked up and sharpened lasted a lifetime.

The world outside is changing rapidly. Business is not booming as it did in the pre-dot-com era. Opportunities are like rainbows. They appear for a brief while and suddenly vanish. Those who are agile and skilled get the spoils. By the time the competition has caught on, the opportunity dries up and appears in another unexpected part of the world. That basically means that people have to constantly reskill themselves. The skills have short life spans.

Academic institutions have not changed over the years. While the real world problems are often solved by cross functional teams, colleges and business schools are still organised by the silos that existed decades ago. Information that was once available only through a professor is now available for free online. The role of the professor should reflect this reality. In the absence of that fresh entrants into the workplace will find it harder with each year to be relevant.

Education has worked on the principle of fixed tenure and variable quality. Every student spends the same three or four years to get a degree but there is a wide variation in the level of proficiency between students. The employer on the other hand cares about proficiency and not the time that a person has taken to acquire the skill. Academics argue that employability is not the end goal of education. It is all about opening the mind and making the person a global citizen. That is a luxury only the rich can afford. Ask a fresh MBA who is unable to find a job, what he or she believes to be the purpose of education. We acquire skills so that we can use it.

The world today needs people who can learn to constantly reskill themselves without waiting for their college or employer to nudge them. That is a big mind shift needed.

The workforce for the future will come from Africa and Asia and from countries which have a crumbling education system. It then is no longer a problem that we can leave to the respective countries to deal with. The countries which have the wealthy but ageing populations must invest heavily in boosting up the infrastructure, teacher training and the resources needed to prepare the next generation workforce. The next set of entrepreneurs and innovators are in all these countries which are youth-rich and proficiency-poor. Time for a rethink on how we view the world. 

Abhijit’s article also appeared in The Economic Times –

Pink Floyd sang “We don’t need no education…”, I’m doubtful about that! But they went on to say “We don’t need no, thought control..” and that I agree with! What we need is an education system that enables us to be open-minded, humble, self-aware, receptive, responsive, agile, adaptable and experiential and proactive learners. At the very least, it will help us survive!


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