Skills For The Future Of Work

The contours of the workplace are shifting, driven by the adoption of new technologies. To prepare for the changes ahead, companies must build a differently skilled workforce—one that is smart, analytical and agile, ready to be molded—and remolded, for the new world of work.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution unfolds, there are immeasurable opportunities for companies to elevate productivity, gain access to new markets, increase global competitiveness, and realize a sustainable future. But many are focusing on new technologies to move business forward—not recognizing that human skills are still required to support technology adoption and therefore drive business growth.

The question is, what are the skills needed to address the division of labor between humans and machines? In this white paper, we explore the talent requirements that will shape the new workforce and explain why they’re important in helping organizations harness the potential that exists in the business world of tomorrow.

Shifting demands for talent

With the spread of new technologies, there is a discernible shift between the tasks of machines and humans. A new range of roles is emerging requiring different skills in order for people to stay relevant and essential in the new world of work.

The problem is there are not enough workers with the right skills to fill the roles of the modern environment—and the gap is widening at an alarming rate. Korn Ferry’s Global Talent Crunch study indicates that significant shortages will hit nations and companies as soon as 2020. The deficit could be as high as 85.2 million workers by 2030.

This places organizations in a very precarious position. If they cannot find or develop the talent they need to leverage new technological investments, growth will be impeded and financial returns will suffer.

Key skills for a future workforce

In anticipation of the workplace shift that lies ahead, companies must build teams that are differently skilled, with the ability to adapt fluidly as the work environment undergoes its metamorphosis.

Some of these skills are familiar, but may not have been emphasized until now. Skills like data science and data analytics, once reserved for tech circles, now carry immense weight. Soft skills like decision-making or problem-solving are dramatically redefined for the complex new work environment. Creativity and empathy—previously “nice to have,” are now “need to know.”

Then there are some skills that might be surprising. Lesser-known traits, essentialism and grit have emerged as disciplines that contribute greatly to productivity levels and goal-oriented success. Perhaps the most valuable skill for the modern work environment is agile learning – the ability to learn and adapt quickly. And finally, contractor skills will help organizations rapidly fill in the talent gaps as required. Let’s take a deeper look at these eight key skills, and why they should be part of the DNA of the workforce of the future.

1. Essentialism—Focusing on the vital few

If everything is important—nothing is important. There are more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in. Most are trivial and few are vital. Essentialism is the skill of being able to focus on the vital few and ignore the trivial many.

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown says the way of the essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better. It isn’t about how to get more things done: it’s about how to get the right things done. It’s about making the wisest possible investment of time and energy in order to operate at the highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.

By investing in fewer things, the essentialist has the satisfying experience of making significant progress in the things that matter most.

Skilled essentialists have the ability to:

  • Streamline activities and simplify complex procedure
  • Identify and eliminate time-wasters and energy-robbers
  • Make clearer, more focused decisions
  • Execute strategic initiatives faster and with fewer unanticipated problems
  • Sort through competing priorities to focus on the vital few that have the highest impact
  • Communicate the right things to the right people at the right time
  • Solve costly problems before they have a serious impact on profitability

As businesses shift to cross-functional, team-based work, essentialism becomes a critical skill for team leaders. According to Essentialism, the essentialist understands that clarity equals success. Consider team building as an example. The essentialist is selective in hiring talent.

Team members are empowered according to each person’s highest role and goals: they know what each person is really responsible and accountable for.

The essentialist clearly defines a strategy by answering the question, “If we could only do one thing, what would it be?” Everyone on the team is aligned towards a common goal. When teams are unified, they have the power to break through to the next level of contribution. When they lack clarity of purpose, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to discern which of the myriad opportunities are vital.

In a world full of competing distractions, organizations need workers who know how to focus on the vital few and ignore the non-essential many.

2. Grit—The sum of persistence and passion

How often are hiring decisions based on a candidate’s resume, credentials or some computer-based personality assessment? While part of the equation, those qualifications must be balanced with passion, stamina and a drive to succeed—collectively known as “grit.”

Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit, defines this skill as having passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Individuals who are gritty tend to be persistent and push themselves forward.

Individuals who give up when faced with new challenges and who tend to avoid the hard work of change will hold a company back. But, according to Duckworth, people with grit “approach life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Gritty people are in it for the long haul, and have a passionate work ethic that includes:

  • A growth mindset—the ability to learn changes with effort even if by IQ-type measurements they may not have the intelligence or natural talent
  • Long-term, goal-oriented tenacity even under difficult conditions
  • Willingness to fail and restart with lessons learned
  • A desire to assume broader, deeper responsibilities even if these tasks are beyond their current scope of capabilities
  • The ability to see issues, assess problems and find solutions
  • An ingrained desire to contribute to a company’s bottom line

The characteristics of grit can actually determine a person’s success more than IQ can—making them valuable assets in the evolving workplace

Consider companies with dispersed workforces. Not only does a dispersed workforce change the way teams collaborate, it also requires that employees be disciplined and independently productive. Measuring the productivity of remote employees is often difficult; however, people with grit can work autonomously and are driven to produce results, making them well suited for this type of work world.

Another challenge facing today’s organizations is a complacent attitude towards problem-solving. Many have lost the ability to present a case clearly and persuasively. They resist change and rely on template solutions and past practices—avoiding the effort of finding a better solution themselves. Employees with grit have the ability to identify issues, seek answers and make a strong case for what they believe in—even if it is outside of their job description.

Before using an IQ assessment on employees, consider assessing them on the grit scale instead. Gritty employees will help companies adapt to a future in flux.

3. Learning Agility—Learn, test and repeat

The velocity of change is ever increasing—and the shelf life of knowledge is getting shorter. Employees need to constantly evolve their knowledge base to stay relevant in a way that is conducive to working in new environments.

Learning agility is the ability to evolve quickly and effectively by adapting to a changed context or environment. Agility is an action-oriented mindset that is directed by a greater purpose or objective to deliver specific outcomes.

People with learning agility have the ability to:

  • Identify and assess early indicators of change, problems or opportunities that need to be addressed
  • Understand that everything is connected and consider the impact on the system as a whole
  • Relate tactics, actions and learning to a business goal or specific outcomes
  • Understand that new learning must ultimately create value for the customer or employer
  • Collaborate and gain insights from different perspectives and talents (There is no place for ego in agility.)
  • “Fail fast and fail forward.” Accept that anything done the first time is likely to go poorly

Agile learners seek out ways to iteratively practice learning through doing in a way that is as close to reality as possible, with minimal potential impact should it not go as planned. Short iterations of learning and application shorten the feedback cycle and turn knowledge into capability.

A test application could be a project, job assignment or a simulation. For example, once a week, employees of a major bank run an incident “simulation” based on a real-life scenario from the previous week’s incident queue, with some employees playing the role of the customer.

Another approach is “learn-and-do.” These are short sprints of learning followed by immediate application to a task or project in brief increments. The quick back-and-forth between theory and practice ensures that the new knowledge is applied immediately, leading to higher retention rates and relevance.

As the business world changes at breakneck speed, few organizations can afford the time for their people to take weeks or even consecutive days off for training. They are

looking for ways to make learning an integral part of day-to-day jobs. That calls for agile learning. Without it, business stands still.

4. Data Science/Data Analytics—Creating knowledge from big data

Big data is big business today due to the valuable insights organizations can access to know their customers better, launch new products and services, optimize their spending, and maximize their operations.

However, creating such data sets requires an understanding of how to collect data and then sift through it to uncover the right information. That’s why the fields of data science and data analytics have become integral to business and the new workplace.

Despite data science and data analytics being interconnected, each provides different results. While the goal of both is to create knowledge from the large sets of information, they have different roles in this effort. In effect, a data scientist creates questions while a data analyst finds answers to the existing set of questions. Put another way, data science provides information that can be used for data analytics.

Both data scientists and data analysts need to:

Have a solid foundation in critical thinking skills. For data scientists, this is important in identifying what data to provide. For data analysts, critical thinking helps them use that information to reach sound conclusions.

Understand how business objectives should drive business processes and decisions. This helps data scientists provide predictions and insights to assist businesses in making long-term decisions. For data analysts, this helps them choose what information to use.

Be creative. Data scientists need to create new methods to gather, sort, organize and analyze data. Analysts must consider new ways of using existing data.

Data scientists also need to be comfortable with ambiguity because they are trying to make sense of unstructured data from various sources. Data analysts need analytical abilities to determine what data is relevant to the question and the solution. They also need “data wrangling skills” to communicate findings from raw data to a non-technical audience in a comprehensive, accessible format.

Both data science and data analytics are important elements of the future of work because companies need people who can turn information into knowledge. Knowing the difference between the two can have a large impact on how a business is run, especially as the amount of available data grows and becomes a greater part of our everyday lives.

5. Decision-Making—Making decisions supported by informed analysis

In every organization, decisions must be made and actions taken. Many times, decisions— even at the highest level—are arrived at
using intuition informed by knowledge and experiences.

But the new workplace is challenging the way decisions are made. Staff members are no longer co-located, online collaboration tools have changed the make-up of the meeting room, people are bombarded by information delivered on demand, and the accelerated speed at which we expect communication and ideas makes major decision-making difficult and risky.

Gut feelings and experience may be sufficient for day-to-day decisions, however, critical decisions must be based on informed analysis and data, with participation from key stakeholders to arrive at a decision that everyone can support.

Take the case of a plant manager tasked with reconfiguring the assembly line to reduce waste. The manager doesn’t work on the line, and therefore lacks the necessary insights required to make a decision. The manager turns to a team of employees who work directly on the line. The team is informed of the objectives, the budget and the time frame. The team conducts the research, makes on-the-job observations, identifies options and associated risks, and presents their findings with recommendations to the plant manager for final analysis. After careful review, the best balanced decision is made.

A great decision-maker has the ability to:

  • Lead and unite teams to make organizationally impactful decisions—to level expectations, clearly define terms, establish a common language and ensure that everyone involved has a unified starting point
  • Employ experience and best judgment combined with solid facts and data about alternatives and risks
  • Make a balanced choice with the information available at the time—even if it’s not perfect or popular
  • Balance IQ, EQ and RQ. Align a team’s IQ, emotional intelligence and rational intelligence to achieve the best results
  • Engage others. Asking for input from others leads to greater support for a decision
  • Recognize what they don’t know. Talk to subject matter experts to be better armed and more confident in making the best choice

The workplace will continue to evolve, giving rise to new types of issues to be addressed and executive decisions to be made. At the core of strong decision-making are leaders who know how to employ a structured process to arrive at the best balanced decision, regardless of the situation, and know with every confidence that it is the right one.

Read Decision-Making as a Leadership Skill

6. Complex Problem-Solving—Uncovering smart solutions in complex settings

If the light doesn’t work, the bulb likely needs to be replaced. That’s linear thinking. But if a new electric or self-driving car suddenly breaks down on the expressway, it could be any number of things gone awry within the car’s system, requiring complex problem-solving.

Unlike linear thinking, complex problem-solving looks at the broader picture rather than the problem itself. With complex problem-solving, there could be many contributing factors, the

solution is unclear, the problem itself may be part of or related the system as a whole, and stakeholders may not be in alignment on what the right solution looks like.

To be effective in complex problem-solving, one must be curious and have the cognitive flexibility to find new combinations of existing possibilities.

A person who is skilled at complex problem-solving has these traits:

  • Ability to discriminate hard facts from ideas ensuring that there is no confusion about what the possible cause could be based on verified data about what, when, where and size
  • Ability to identify gaps in information. A complex problem-solver knows how to ask the right questions and where to look for information that leads to the solution
  • Knows how to be diplomatic. Coming up with an answer too easily may cause embarrassment, and lead to resistance
  • Deals with the impact of the problem effectively. Keeping the discussion of how to manage the effect on business and customers separated from the investigation of causes
  • Ability to let go of experience or look at it dispassionately. What worked before isn’t necessarily the right solution now
  • Avoids finger-pointing. Blame inhibits problem-solving. Change the language from “What did you do?” to “What happened that might be related to this?”
  • Ability to separate four tracks: understanding, investigation, decision-making and risk management

Knowing how to solve ill-defined problems in complex, new-world settings is an important skill set for organizations with their eye on the future.

Consider the case of the bad biscuits that had factory workers perplexed. Instead of a glossy chocolate finish, biscuits were coming off one assembly line with an unappetizing white coat, rendering them unsaleable.

What had changed? Was it the new chocolate supplier?

The machine that dispersed the coating? Looking at the broader picture and considering the inter-relationship of the parts of the system as a whole, it was discovered that along the way a small vent had accidentally been closed, obstructing the blast of cool air on the biscuits that was required to achieve a desirable shiny chocolate finish.

Real-world problems are complex, highly interconnected and dynamically changing over time. Businesses are wasting millions trying to solve challenging issues through trial and error. Often problems are exacerbated by previous attempts to solve them.

The number of moving parts that make up our interdependent environment will only increase, creating a real demand for knowledge work. Knowing how to solve ill-defined problems in complex, new-world settings is an important skill set for organizations with their eye on the future.

7. Design Thinking—Problem-solving with empathy

Delivering high quality products and services is no longer a point of differentiation—it is the minimally accepted standard for business. To cut through the clutter, a company needs more than new products and services—it needs to create solutions that connect with customers emotionally.

Design thinking is creative problem-solving with empathy. It is a human-centric approach that views a problem or a challenge from the eyes of the beholder and uses those insights to develop a solution that is desirable from a user perspective that is logical and economically viable.

Individuals who possess design-thinking skills are able to:

  • Question and listen with empathy to truly understand the needs and anxiety points of users and non-users
  • Keenly observe to identify challenges that the user may not be able to articulate
  • Synthesize data and information to identify key insights
  • Stay open-minded and willing to try different approaches—understanding that failing is part of the journey to success
  • Work collaboratively with others with diverse views and backgrounds
  • Generate prolific solutions that are creative and transformative
  • Iteratively experiment to test, confirm and refine ideas

When GE Healthcare discovered that their shiny new MR scanner actually terrified young patients, they employed creative thinking to build a friendly, imaginative MR experience for children called the MR Adventure Discovery Series. The new, child-friendly scanners make a big difference in how children

react to being scanned, reduce scanning time and accommodate more patients. It’s one example of how designing with empathy can result in positive change.

Even while digital transformation is gaining greater presence in the workplace with automation replacing many jobs, we are still far from machines thinking and feeling like humans. Workers in the new workplace need to be able to understand the customer and employ empathy to create better solutions. Design thinking will not only improve the customer experience but also help humans to co-exist and collaborate harmoniously with machines.

Read Staying Relevant in the Age of Disruption

8. Contractor Skills—Rapidly acquired skills as needed

More and more organizations are expanding their use of contractors, freelancers or temporary staff as a means of addressing talent shortages. Contractors are individuals who are self-employed, and available to perform task- specialized or project-based work on a temporary basis for various organizations.

Contracting or outsourcing allows companies to rapidly acquire the skills they need as they need them. As organizations are forced to become more agile and work is completed in team-based settings, hiring contract workers is becoming standard practice. Contractors are flexible, able to fit in as required during peak periods or at times when your business is experiencing a skills gap and able to exit when their skills are no longer required.

Contractors can be hired in practically every industry, from virtually any location thanks to digital communication and collaboration tools. They can also be hired to work on-site .

Successful contractors possess these characteristics:

  • Ability to communicate to different audiences through various media
  • Emotional intelligence – to identify pain points and show empathy in solutions
  • Diagnostic abilities – to identify processes and gaps, build projects based on need, and analyze data
  • Critical thinking, particularly around problem-solving
  • Creative thinking – able to move outside a preferred thinking model, and incorporate other points of view
  • Ability to facilitate groups of diverse stakeholders
  • Flexibility in travel, work schedules, assigned projects and communication styles
  • Ability to work autonomously particularly when working from a remote location
  • Comfortable with the unknown. Can step into new situations with new co-workers with confidence
  • Customer service-focused – can put the client needs first

Building the new workforce

It’s time for companies to take action to build a workforce that makes sense for their future. While this will differ from company to company and sector to sector, the initiatives for reshaping the worker base must include hiring or contracting new talent to address skill gaps, and retraining or upskilling existing employees.

Finding new employees can be difficult – and expensive. Skills like grit and learning agility are not necessarily taught in college or part of the standard resume. HR must look at ways to assess and select candidates who are adaptive, open to change and willing to reskill as needed in an evolving workplace. The costs to acquire, train and integrate a new hire into a workforce are high and it takes a considerable amount of time to determine if the individual is the “right fit.” New assessment tools can streamline the interview process and provide valuable insights into the skills, working styles, and attributes of potential hires.

Using contractors, freelancers, or temporary workers allows companies to rapidly acquire the skills they need. As organizations become more agile and work is done in team-based settings, integrating contract workers into the organization becomes more seamless.

While technology may be the nuts and bolts that make business work, it’s humans that will be their engine of success today – and well into tomorrow.

The best source of newly skilled workers lies in a company’s existing employee base. Businesses must look internally and retrain or redeploy to fill critical roles. But they need to work fast. With a massive skill shift underway, there will be less time in the future for long course cycles. Instead, businesses should use agile learning tactics such as training content updated in real time, and micro- learning that delivers just-in-time information in bite-sized videos, letting employees learn when and where they need it. At the same time, classroom and face-to-face training for deeper or more technical topics will also remain important.

While the methods of how to train will continue to shift, creating a lifelong learning culture is perhaps one of the most important strategies for building the workforce of the future-forward organization.

The window of opportunity is closing fast. Organizations need to understand the emerging skills required for the modern workplace and take action to seek out workers who possess them. In addition, companies must provide an enabling environment for reskilling or upskilling to ensure they have a workforce for the future. While technology may be the nuts and bolts that make business work, it’s humans that will be their engine of success today—and well into tomorrow.

For more information please visit www,kepner-tregoe.com or contact one of the contributors directly at 1 800-537-6378.


Jason O’Neill
Bill Baldwin—Chief Executive Officer
Christoph Goldenstern—Vice President of Innovation and Service Excellence
George Ng—Regional Managing Director, Southeast Asia
John Ager—Consultant, North America
Christian Green—Global Lead for Operational Excellence
Andrew Vermes—Senior Consultant, Europe

About Kepner-Tregoe

Kepner-Tregoe is the leader in problem-solving. For over six decades, Kepner-Tregoe has helped thousands of organizations worldwide solve millions of problems through more effective root cause analysis and decision-making skills. Kepner-Tregoe partners with organizations to significantly reduce cost and improve operational performance through problem-solving training, technology and consulting services.



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