An Indeed.com survey reported that nearly 60 percent of corporate leaders said lack of soft skills among job candidates limits their companies’ productivity. A LinkedIn study revealed that the escalated demand for soft skills is largely unmet.
Formidable growth in workplace technology and applications over the past couple of years is accelerating the need for some uniquely human skills. The “trend pendulum” that swung a in the recent past toward science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education is yielding the desired results, but that effort now needs to be balanced with a greater focus on some essential business capabilities, such as effective teaming, listening and problem solving skills.
Adding “Learning to Think” to the Curriculum
A recent Wall Street Journal article added to the concern with an article exposing educational shortcomings in helping students “learn to think.” The article’s findings triggered reader reactions from interested organizations, senior executives, and team managers. Every year, freshman and seniors at 200 colleges across the United States take a standardized test called the College Learning Assessment Plus, or CLA+. The test requires the use of spreadsheets, newspapers articles, and research papers to answer questions, take a position on a topic and provide feedback on an argument. The 2013 through 2016 test results showed that in many cases, there was little or no improvement in student critical thinking over their four years at many of the institutions involved. Academic experts and employers interviewed by the Journal said the findings indicate a failure of our higher education system “to arm graduates with analytical reasoning and problem-solving skills needed to thrive in a fast-changing, increasingly global job market.”
Knowing the right questions to ask hinges on knowing what problem you’re trying to solve.
This leads to three important reasons why I believe critical thinking should be at the top of the list of non-technical, future success criteria:
- We are more focused than ever on diverse skillsets and competencies. At EY (Ernst & Young), as part of our Reimagining the Future of Work strategy, we recognize the need to attract individuals with liberal arts, life sciences, technology, economics, and law degrees, among others, to fully realize all the benefits our Intelligent Automation developments provide. In other words, we view smart machines as collegial, mutually reliant colleagues.
- Our deep work in robotic process automation (RPA) is designed to take the robot out of our people. We have hundreds of bots handle mundane, repetitive tasks. This frees up our talented professionals to spend more time on strategic, purposeful work. Increasingly, we pose the question, “What can you do with more time?” For high-performing professionals, the answer will often be—assess, analyze, visualize, improve, and innovate.
- Asking better questions is critical to helping our clients succeed. At EY, we believe the better the question, the better the answer, and the better the world works. A recent Harvard Business Review article advocates for liberal arts majors, stating “If we want to prepare students to solve large-scale human problems, we must push them to widen, not narrow, their education and interests. Of course, we need technical experts, but we also need people who grasp the whys and hows of human behavior.” Knowing the right questions to ask hinges on knowing what problem you’re trying to solve for in the first place, the article explains. At EY, asking these questions will help us solve the working world’s greater problems.
Redefining What Makes a Person Smart
From the C-suite to the recruiting team, we all need to pay attention to this issue. It can start with promoting soft skills in academic curricula and continue with on-the-job learning programs and even executive training. Solutions to many business problems today can involve hundreds of individual pieces of data, research findings, physical observations, conversations and more. The path forward is not always clear and finding the right solution demands that our people can manipulate information effectively and find meaning in all those disparate pieces.
Another recent article in Harvard Business Review addressed the challenges of machines being able to outsmart people on many playing fields, thus redefining what makes a person smart. “What is needed,” the article says, “is a new definition…one that promotes higher levels of human thinking and emotional engagement. The new smart will be determined not by what or how you know but by the quality of your thinking, listening, relating, collaborating and learning.”
The late educational psychologist, Richard Paul, Ph.D., defined critical thinking as, “Thinking about your thinking, while you’re thinking, in order to improve your thinking.” Finding just the right words to describe it is not always easy, but like other complex attributes—“personality” and “style,” for example—you know it when you see it. Critical thinking skills often shine through in even the most routine conversation with either a new hire or a tenured executive. We should all be vigilant about spotting it. It is a valuable asset for our future.