The idea that generalists and soft skills are needed in the modern workplace seems to be hitting the mainstream of HR, L&D, etc. I have written about these for the past decade or more, and I think it’s necessary to clarify some of the discussion.
1. Wicked problems need neo-generalists
Neo-generalists defy common understanding. They cross boundaries, and some break them. They see patterns before others do. They go against hundreds of years of cultural programming. I doubt this is what most employers in large organizations are looking for. But neo-generalists are necessary today — “It is through the hybridization of and cross-pollination between such disciplines [science & humanities] that we will arrive at solutions for our wicked problems.” Hiring and developing generalists will not be enough.
2. A centuries old schism is not addressed overnight
E.O. Wilson, in The Origins of Creativity, envisages a third enlightenment that will bring us closer to seeing humanity as one common group, uniting fields of knowledge. But how many in the humanities have deep science skills, and vice versa?
“Scientists and scholars in the humanities, working together, will, I believe serve as the leaders of a new philosophy, one that blends the best and most relevant from these two branches of learning.”
Recombining the sciences and the humanities will take some time. In the meantime, cross-disciplinary teams may be more practical.
3. Permanent Skills
What are often call soft skills are those that require time, mentoring, informal learning, and other environmental supports in order to develop. Courses and training are never enough. For example, training cannot address unconscious bias, yet it is frequently accepted as a ‘solution’. System 1 skills cannot be developed through education.
Some meta-competencies can be developed through conscious ongoing effort. Meta-competencies require ‘meta time’ which is often forgotten in organizations focused on short-term measurements. In a networked economy, work is learning and learning is the work. We cannot divorce learning from the work being done. Meta (learning) competencies take a long time. I have identified two learning competencies — Learning How to Learn & Adapting to Continuous Change.
4. There is no silver bullet
In the book Range, David Epstein states that, “learning is most efficient in the long run when it is inefficient in the short run”. Most education and training courses, “produce misleadingly high levels of immediate mastery that will not survive the passage of substantial periods of time”. Whatever ‘solution’ is being offered is probably wrong and simplistic. What company is willing to invest in inefficient short-term training? What company will invest in a multi-year development program?
5. A leap of faith
Before jumping on the next HR bandwagon, do some homework. A lot of the research has already been done. The bottom line is that these kinds of changes to workplace learning and development will take time and effort. I believe they are necessary but I have no illusions on how difficult they will be. There are centuries of structural issues to address. Ricardo Semler says that any company can change to an open learning organization, but it takes a leap of faith to not worry about losing control. Companies focused on quarterly results are not designed to make such a leap. Change takes time. Mastery takes time.