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Five skills for tomorrow’s manager

Tom Cheesewright

Tom Cheesewright

As we head into 2014, Tom Cheesewright suggests the five skills organisations will need in their managers in 2014 and beyond

Politicians love the phrase ‘the knowledge economy’. They seem to think it would be a good thing if we had a knowledge economy. I don’t agree.

Knowledge is commoditised, cheap and widely accessible. Most people can find out most things with a simple web search. A knowledge economy was fine before the web, when knowledge could be protected and controlled, its supply limited.

That’s not to say knowledge isn’t important: without it we have no context against which to set our searches for new information. But knowledge won’t make our economy competitive. What we need is skills.

Here are five skills I think will be crucial for tomorrow’s manager. None of them are new, but all will carry increasing importance in 2014 and beyond and organisations that improve employee capabitility in these areas will be ahead of the curve.

1. Self-directed learning

The pace of change is fast and accelerating. Instead of learning new skills at two or three points in a career we will need to learn new skills every two or three years. The ability to recognise your own skill gaps, find an education provider, rapidly absorb information and apply it will be highly valued.

Much of the teaching will be done online: sites like codeacademy.com have built a great model for rapidly teaching key skills. These will supplemented with peer-to-peer forums, much as already happens with software and web development: if you don’t know the answer to a question, the chances are someone else has already asked it and had it answered.

This is already happening in some industries and skills markets. What needs to change is the attitude of employers and the education system to this new reality: you don’t need to train people in/recruit people with all the possible skills today. Instead you need to recruit people with the aptitude to learn as required.

2. Analysis

One of the problems I encounter frequently in client organisations is a lack of real-time information. Reports are collated manually and are out of date by the time they are assembled for monthly or even quarterly board meetings.

In a fast-paced environment managers need the skills to design and deploy analysis (analytics) tools that will give them real-time information, allowing rapid course corrections, and smart decision making. Truly great managers will be able to use this data to recognise problems before they even occur.

The fast-growing digital industries are fuelled by data, telling them instantly which features and designs work and which ones need to change, where there are bottlenecks that stop customers spending or diminish the user experience. Other industries can adopt much of the learning from this market but it will require re-engineering business processes around platforms that enable the capture of good data.

3. Synthesis

Much of innovation is not about creating something wholly original, it is about applying learning from one area to another. There is a particular skill in being able to match up pieces of information, products or services from different areas and combine them into something new. 

Tomorrow’s manager must cast a wide net for potential sources of learning but then know how to bring that learning to bear on the problems at hand.

4. Process design

There is a great deal of emphasis on kids learning to code at school at the moment. This is great, but not because of the specific computer language it teaches. In order to write software you need to understand structure and flow, rules that apply as much to organisations as they do to software programs.

The ability to design and redesign business structures like this will be absolutely crucial in tomorrow’s organisations.

5. Communication

None of these skills matter if their output and value cannot be communicated to colleagues, customers and partners. I’ve been involved in a number of discussions over the past year about skills that employers want most from graduates and apprentices, and communication is always at the top of the list. Though it may be an obvious request, most employers suggest it’s a skill that is lacking in new recruits.

Communication skills take a number of forms. Speaking and presenting confidently is valuable, but so is the ability to write clear and compelling copy. Increasingly the ability to use digital tools - social media, content management systems, video and audio production - will be core rather than nice-to-haves.

It is not clear how these skills will be taught to tomorrow’s managers. The schools curriculum is steering towards a focus on learned knowledge. Though there is enthusiasm at Universities for ‘transferable skills’ and ‘employability’, the employers I speak to are yet to report any noticeable results. In the short term the workplace may be the only place these skills are properly taught.

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