In the third in our series on management in the future, Tom Cheesewright tells us why knowing all the facts won’t make for a futureproof manager
“Question 1: What is the name of the official national anthem of the USA?”
Knowing the answers to questions like this makes you an asset to your pub quiz team. It probably makes you good value as a dinner party guest. It doesn't make you a great manager, or employee.
To see why, pick a set of quiz questions off the web at random. Stick the questions into Google. Only look at the first result (unless that is the page from which you got the question). Tot up how many Google gets right with its first response. I did it just now: Google was 10 for 10.
It won't always be so accurate. The more complex and nuanced the question, the harder it is to find a definitive answer. But in most cases the facts are out there. Even with today's technology, you don't need to store facts in your head. They have been devalued. What you need is the skills to find and qualify the right facts for the task at hand.
Having received hundreds of misspelled job applications, the idea of a renewed focus on spelling and grammar is appealing. But I can't honestly say it will be of much use in the workplace in twenty years' time. Likewise times tables: still useful today but for how much longer?
These skills are going to be increasingly important for two reasons, both driven by technology.
First, the speed at which we can search for information will fall. Predictive search agents, personalised websites, hardware like Google Glass and ubiquitous connectivity will make the combined knowledge of the web accessible to us with barely a thought.
Second, technology is driving ever more rapid cycles of creation and destruction in business. Different businesses need different facts.
Take the film rental business. Twenty years ago a manager needed to know about square footage, display shelving, and window dressing. Ten years ago it was all about postage costs and preference lists. Today it is bandwidth and social marketing.
These three completely different services – rental from a shop, rental by post, direct streaming – might have been run by the same company. But each requires a very different set of knowledge. What remains common between the three operations is the fundamental skills required: critical thinking, research and qualification, communication, planning etc.
Curriculum for the future
Speaking to a selection of business leaders at a recent event in Manchester, it's clear that skills are an issue even today. Asked about the most important issues for their business today, they dispatched Europe in seconds and quickly focused on education. What they wanted was school leavers and graduates who would arrive with basic skills, a bright mind and a work ethic. Knowledge – general or specific – barely figured.
Unfortunately this seems to be contrary to the current direction of travel for the national curriculum, under the latest revisions of which there is a clearly mandated focus on learning facts. Having received hundreds of misspelled job applications, the idea of a renewed focus on spelling and grammar is appealing. But I can't honestly say it will be of much use in the workplace in twenty years' time. Likewise times tables: still useful today but for how much longer?
Where knowledge can play a role is in the teaching of skills. Spelling and grammar will remain important because it teaches us that the syntax of language is as important as the content in communicating meaning. Not just to Lynne Truss ('Eats, Shoots and Leaves') but to any computer programmer.
History is a fantastic tool for teaching strategy, creative thought, empathy and communication. The facts themselves should not be the objective: they are simply a means to an end.
We're all bionic now
The development of the human race could be mapped purely on our adoption of tools. Each time we adopt a new tool, old skills become obsolete and our evolution continues on its new path. We learned to make fire; we could ingest more calories with lower effort; our brains grew; we lost the ability to easily digest raw food (at least this is one theory).
It takes time for us to adapt to the new technology and the lost skills. But eventually we do. We have now built tools that can store knowledge much better than we ever could. And retrieve it for us in fractions of a second. We are already people augmented by computers; essentially bionic.
What computers can't do is ask the right question, separate fact from fiction or weight facts in an argument. They can't create something new from old knowledge. We need to accept that the age of leaders as repositories of knowledge is over. Tomorrow's leaders will be those with the skills to adapt.