Working in contemporary business, does it require a broad education or job-specific skills?



It is hard to imagine life today without the internet. The use of digital search and the ease with which one can acquire and/or verify facts and data has transformed the way in which we find things out. Carrying out research for hours in a library, many of which were inefficient and ineffective can now be accomplished with a few clicks of the mouse.

This profound change, which has taken place over the last 20 or so years emphasises the even wider shifts in the nature of knowledge and corresponding methods of education. Today it would seem that it is less important to know, and more important to know what is known. Does a Director in a business today need not be fully au fait with the Kraljic Portfolio Purchasing Model? Or would it be more important for him or her to simply know that it exists, and that others give it weight when considering the assessment of risk and maximising profitability.

At the boundaries of knowledge, the academic working in business and who seeks to find a more advanced option pricing model, must still acquire personal mastery of all relevant information. And yet those running businesses, managing assets or financing national defence capabilities are carrying out activities whose primary demand is an ability to combine what might be described loosely as a ‘bunch of details’. The ability to make connections between disparate sources of information it would seem is more critical than detailed knowledge of any specific knowledge foundation. This is because the internet and other smart technologies have made it all so much easier for us.

That said the widespread belief especially amongst professional bodies that the acquisition of job-specific knowledge should be the focus in today’s business functions is misconceived if not in my opinion somewhat bizarre. It is it is quite ridiculous that so many people in positions of influence, are not only functionally illiterate, but do not feel embarrassed by that illiteracy.

But this is because education is excessively specialist; and not because it is insufficiently vocational. In the school that my children attend it is possible, and common, to abandon the study of any scientific subject at the age of 15. It is alarming to me that they can opt out of any quantitative discipline and avoid applying themselves to these subjects.

So I find myself wondering do we need to reconsider education and introduce school children and perhaps even undergraduates too, to a wide range of subjects and approaches to knowledge acquisition and development? I am astounded by the number of Corporate Directors I have met who ridicule references to philosophy, sociology and anthropology – adding to their displeasure at your reference to something deep and perhaps challenging that they have to ‘live in the real world’.

Perhaps if they had even a little capacity for reflection they might realise that ‘real life’ is not simply their version of common sense or a leaf plucked from their ‘book of life’. Moreover, a lack of understanding of ‘other things’ – be they culture, art, history or geography – might hamper their capabilities when impactful decisions need to be made regarding catastrophes such as the situation of the thousands of Syrians in Aleppo and others closer to home in Europe and the UK.

It is a mistake to focus basic education on job-specific skills that a changing world will render redundant in a few years. Those who maintain that both emphasis and resources should be devoted to teaching ‘core’ subjects – numeracy, literacy, science, technology, engineering and humanities – have a point. However, the ‘point’ is usually that we need people with knowledge that will help them get on in the business world – i.e. a focus on the ‘known knowns’.

The objective in my view should be to equip people with a capacity to enjoy rewarding employment and fulfilling lives in a future environment whose demands we can neither anticipate nor predict. We need people with the capacity to think critically, develop creative solutions and observe carefully — the capabilities that education can and should develop — will be as useful then as they are today. We need innovators and always will.

Gerard Chick is Director of Intelligence at the Skanör Group.

Follow Gerard on Twitter @GerardChick. He recently won a prestigious procurement and supply management literary award, Les Plumes des Achats Grand Prix ACA Bruel 2015, for his book, Procurement’s Value Proposition: The Rise of Supply Management, which was co-written with Dr Robert Handfield.

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