Saturday, November 25, 2017

Business Organizations and Learning Culture--Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skillsets

Business organizations need to re-assess their understanding of the importance of critical thinking and problem solving skillsets for their organizations. News articles are appearing with such titles as :

"New Graduates Will Not Be Employable Unless They Possess the Soft Skills of Critical Thinking and Problem Solving"

At first glance such a statement seems entirely reasonable and given that we are living in an age of increasing information and knowledge many organizations would agree with such a statement. However, suggesting that critical thinking and problem solving are "soft skills" does not recognize that these skillsets are essentials and not the "nice if you have them type of skills".

In fact I would go so far as to say that business organizations should NOT hire university graduates who can not demonstrate efficiency in these skillsets.

Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

Hard skills have been defined as teachable abilities or skill sets that are easy to quantify. Typically, you'll learn hard skills in the classroom, through books or other training materials, or on the job. Some examples of hard skills as pointed out by HR departments are:

  • a degree or certificate
  • proficiency in foreign languages
  • computer programming
  • machine operation

Soft skills have been defined as subjective skills that are much harder to quantify. Also known as "people skills" or "interpersonal skills," soft skills relate to the way that you relate to and interact with other people. Some examples of soft skills as pointed out by HR departments are:

  • critical thinking
  • problem solving
  • communication
  • team work

I would like to turn this balance on its head by suggesting:

"Soft skills in a digital age should be "primary tier skillsets" because they are foundational to accomplishing all that is involved with the use of hard skills!"

Why change? The reason is tied to the fact that more and more business will be conducted online where collaboration, communication, problem solving and critical thinking are essentials to developing a healthy "brand" in a much greater market for being known. Also, with the development of digital simulations that involve employees collaborating as a group, soft skills are the key to the development of hard skills.

Looking at the definitions and examples above, we are left with an important question:

"Do these definitions align effectively with the 21st century expectations of a globally connected digital business world?"

I would say no and it is getting worse. it has been the goal of business organizations to achieve a balance between hard skills and soft skills. The hard skills would get an individual a job but it was the soft skills that would allow the individual to keep the job.

The balance as a result of advancing technology and the opening up of a business friendly online environment has shifted towards the importance of soft skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration. So, what then is the problem??

Higher Education and Development of Critical Thinking

Coming back to the original headline which was:

"New Graduates Will Not Be Employable Unless They Possess the Soft Skills of Critical Thinking and Problem Solving"

we have to ask what is happening with the development of critical thinking and problem solving skillsets in higher education. After all, this is the pool from which we will draw our future workforce from.
Critical thinking as a skillset is not being nurtured on many university campuses where teaching students WHAT to think has become important than teaching them HOW to think. A recent article is but one of many articles that are coming under the media spotlight in many universities.

You might ask yourself, from a business perspective, why I should be concerned? If you look at the soft skill traits that non-critical thinkers possess, you should be alarmed.

All the soft skills, as important as they are, will be dispensed with. So skills involving collaboration, problem solving, communication, team work will not work unless they fit the mindset of students who have have bought into political correctness as the right mindset for approaching all things in life. They may be proficient in the use of technology but will they use it to develop and encourage the soft skills or will they use their proficiency in technology to challenge and paralyze the need for soft skills to the detriment of the business?

Your solution might simply be not to hire such individuals but what if it is entrenched in a generation? If you think that I am exaggerating then Google news items about free speech and critical thinking on university campuses. I think that you will be surprised.

So, what is the solution to such a dilemma? 

Political pressure needs to be brought to bear on educational institutions in our societies to make sure that critical thinking and problem solving are systematically embedded, emphasized and taught across all curriculum boundaries and not just in the sciences. It needs to start in primary grades and flow throughout the education system into the realm of higher education. Teaching students how to think instead of what to think leads to employees who know how to think, will listen to all points of view, evaluate evidence presented by different points of view and then be able to make decisions based upon valid, verifiable evidence. It is also a key to arriving at creative and innovative solutions that our societies need in order for effective change that improves the quality of life of all people.

If you look at your future business needs and compare them with 21st century thinking skills that should be emphasized, you will notice a good and useful pattern of harmonization,

If the use of such technologies as VR , Augmented Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Advanced Robotics are going to be harnessed to enrich your business organization and increase ROI on a global scale, then you need employees who are good critical thinkers, problem solvers and can play nice in the digital sand box with others. Social attitudes that counter this are not only to be discouraged but also countered using whatever political and financial assets are available. With elections on the horizon, the time to re-shape and transform the importance of soft skills is now.

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