10 Unique Characteristics of 21st Century Skills


skills.jpgThere’s been a lot of talk about the skills crisis lately. Most of it is focused on the wrong thing — people seem most worried by the fact that a lot of baby boomers are set to retire, and are taking their skills out of the economy.

That’s a big issue, but that’s not the big issue.

If an organization is to survive the high-velocity economy, it needs to be doing a lot of innovation with the 10 Unique Characteristics of 21st Century Skills:

  • skills are more specialized. Rapid knowledge growth means that it is increasingly difficult for people to keep on top of what they need to know. That means people need to specialize; knowledge niches are the reality for most professions and careers. As they specialize, simple supply/demand reduces skills availability, leading to skills inflation. It’s going to cost more to get the right specialized skills — that’s a big problem.
  • skills are disloyal. A recent survey out of Belfast indicated that 36% of people indicated that on their very first day on a new job, they were already thinking about looking for another job! I don’t think that’s unique to the Irish — (and I am of Irish descent….) — I believe that it confirms that a massive philosophical shift towards a “job” and “career” is underway. The death of corporate loyalty means an increasing difficulty to get the right skills.
  • skills are degradable. The half life of knowledge is decreasing at a furious rate. Most organizations are discovering that the skills they do have are becoming increasingly useless as knowledge obsolesence takes hold. Skills are ready to walk out the door as soon as they arrive — and if they hang around, their value decreases rather quickly!
  • skills are renewable: Fortunately, out of date skills can be given new life. if people and companies can develop the ability to generate just-in-time-knowledge — a phrase I coined over a decade ago — they’ll learn how to adapt and evolve.
  • some skills have no urgency: The challenge is that a lot of skills don’t really worry about the points above. Some professions, and many staff in organizations, simply don’t think about the reality of skills extinction as a real trend. They have no desire to upgrade, enhance, or change their capabilities. The lack of urgency leads to a sclerosis that impacts the overall ability of the organization to change, innovate and create.
  • skills are disposable: The unique thing about skills today is that companies clearly don’t need staff anymore — they simply need the right skills at the right time for the right purpose. After that need has gone, they will need different skills for a different purpose. In the high-velocity economy, the idea of a permanent skills base is a quaint concept from the 20th century.
  • skills are increasingly portable. That’s the good thing we’ve learned with globalization: with the depth of the emerging skills crisis, it doesn’t really matter anymore where the skills are — as long as you can get them, that’s all that counts!
  • skills can be transferable: the boomer retirement issue is real. Smart organizations are spending big money to ensure that important knowledge is captured, retained and archived.
  • skills should be experiential. This goes back to my ’21st century capital’ post: I think that one of the most important assets a company requires is the depth of it’s experiential capital — that is, the knowledge is has learned through innovation, risk, failure and success. Boost that skills capability and you’ve done something that flows onto the bottom line.
  • skills are generational: We’re going to have a lot of active 80 year olds in the economy as the end of the concept of retirement draws near, at the same time that companies seek skills from bright, knowledge aggressive 15 year olds. We are going to have the longest life-span economy that has ever existed. If we prepare for that culturally and organizationally, we’ve got a good strong plan for dealing with the skills challenges of the future.

Some months back, in an entry I wrote a blog entry on the concept of “21st century capital”. One item I included was the concept of capital including a “strong skills accessibility capability”, noting that “talent, not money, will be the new corporate battlefront ….

That’s an important battle, and it’s going to require a lot of innovation and creativity in terms of solutions.


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