Thursday, September 25, 2008

Developing broader skills.

In the past, technical employees developed specialized skills by delving deeper and deeper into narrow fields of expertise. They also tended to stay in one position or area for a long time before moving up or out. Many got promotions or became managers because of their specialized expertise and their ability to combine analytical reasoning with intuition sharpened by years of experience. In the future, however, a narrow specialist risks becoming a liability rather than an asset.

More complex technology calls for combinations of new and different skills to operate and solve problems. Changes in engineering education already reflect this trend toward broader expertise. Carnegie-Mellon had merged electrical and computer engineering into a single degree program. Cornell offers a combined civil and geotechnical engineering degree. A high-performance culture demands new skills and capabilities that will enable specialists not only to solve problems by themselves, but also to help others learn what these specialists know. Doing so requires interpersonal as well as technical skills.

So, organizations that promote people solely on their records as individual contributors are likely to pick the wrong people. In the past, we've tended to promote highly structured, analytical, action-oriented people. In the future, we'll need people with agility and flexibility, multi-focused thinkers able to integrate many different kinds of information, who can get above the details of their own departments and detect patterns and opportunities where others only see chaos.

In high performing companies, success depends not just on what functional specialists do, but on their connections and interactions with others. This doesn't just come about automatically. It comes by widely distributing leadership responsibility throughout the firm. Business literacy is a big issue in developing leadership. You can't ask people to exercise broader judgement if their world is bounded by a very narrow vision.

This new evolving world has some perplexing paradoxes:

- Being in control means being a little out of control.

- Although people will work in small groups, they'll have to stay in touch with many more people.

- Even though new technologies allow people to communicate effortlessly with countless others, they risk becoming more isolated than ever before.

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