Can universities adapt to the demand for relearning?

The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot ‘unlearn and then relearn’. To succeed in the future, people will need to anticipate change and retrain and the most prized skills may be ideation and creativity.

Universities will have a vital role in adapting to and serving this changing demand, but due to the pace of change, the question is whether they can adapt quickly enough.

This was at the core of a discussion led by a panel of experts in a session on “The Future of Work: Developing talent across cultures and generations”, at the ninth annual international IE University “Reinventing Higher Education” conference, on 5-6 March at IE University, which is a private non-profit business owned by the Instituto de Empresa SL in Spain.

The experts comprised Martyn Davies, managing director of emerging markets and Africa, Deloitte; Teresa Martin-Retortillo, president of IE Exponential Learning; Cornelius McGrath, 2016 LinkedIn Top Voice/Entrepreneur and managing director of ProMazo; Robert D Reid, senior executive advisor and former vice-president and chief accreditation officer at AACSB; and Nick Van Dam, global chief learning officer at McKinsey.

The discussion kicked off with moderator Stela Campos, career editor at Valor Económico, Brazil, asking a panel ‘how new technologies are impacting work?’, which drew a variety of stimulating responses.

Van Dam argued that we are at the start of a fourth industrial revolution in which his company’s research predicted that 14% of the workforce’s jobs will be automated by 2030. However, he argued that a lot of new posts will also be created, in the same way that the iPhone produced 15 million new jobs for app developers around the world. “The question is: how do we prepare students for jobs that don’t exist today?” he enquired.

“It is all about awareness,” he continued. “The old model of doing a degree and then getting experience [has been replaced by] a model where we keep going back to school to learn. People need to continually ask themselves what they will do over the next 12 months to keep up to date. If their job is not going to exist in 12 months, what can they do to retrain to work within the organisation? And/or what qualifications would they need to apply for a job outside the organisation?” he said.

“It is important to keep learning regardless of background or age,” added Martin-Retortillo, “and we need humility to be able to do this”.

Davies argued that the illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot ‘unlearn and then relearn’. The velocity of life has increased dramatically and “the world is not converging but diverging, and that is very concerning”, he said.

Conversely, Reid was more positive about the future. “I am much more optimistic now,” he said. “There is globalisation and political change, but with this disruption comes enormous opportunities. Universities need a nudge to promote ongoing learning; they need to step up and make things happen.”

Panellists broadly agreed on the increased need for individuals to take more responsibility for their training and their lives. “You have to realise your assets… and train the ‘start up’ in you,” argued McGrath. “It is not incumbent on McKinsey [for example] to train you; you can do productive things on your iPhone or iPad.”

“Many universities are becoming more nimble,” said Reid, “but the pace of change in general in higher education is glacial and that concerns me greatly.”

Technical vs soft skills

Moving on, Stela Campos asked if it was more important to focus on gaining technical expertise or soft skills in the modern world?

Van Dam said that in the past it was necessary to develop yourself in a specific discipline; on a business education course, for example, you might focus on accounting. “But today in addition to that you need digitalisation and analytics,” he said.

“Google looked at high performers and asked what do they have: are they good listeners? Influential? Good problem-solvers? But the key thing they had was ideation and creativity. This is key and this is how we will beat the machine – you need technical skills but you especially need creativity,” he said.

The discussion then turned to distance communication and social media, and on this the panel again largely agreed on the continuing importance of physical contact.

“Teleconferencing has been in place a long time and we can communicate with it, but not form relationships; for that we need to physically meet,” said Davies. “In Deloitte we can access 260,000 people, but we need relationships behind that connection,” he said.

“Our best-performing teams take place when there is physical contact,” agreed McGrath. “In-person connectivity is absolutely essential”.

Van Dam explained that there are two principles at McKinsey: one is that people are obliged to engage and the other is that they are obliged to dissent. “If you don’t agree, you need to speak up and explain why,” he said.

When questions were invited from the floor, Joseph Pistrui, professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at IE, said that his values when growing up were built around sayings like ‘Haste makes waste’, but nowadays his students see anything slow as being broken. “We need to know when to be fast and when to be slow; we need to be functional and productive in both modes. I am concerned about students’ capacity to be slow today,” he said.

Davies agreed: “Many young people exhibit superficiality,” he said. “We need to instil in students a sense of patience and ongoing focus.”