Information-management the key skill for today’s grads

Feb 15, 2013

The following article was published by The Vancouver Sun on February 14, 2013

Modern technology means workers must learn to cope — and thrive — under an an avalanche of data coming from all sides

By Vivian Luk, Special to The Sun 



The working world as we know it is changing fast. And the graduates of today better be prepared for it.

Graham Dodd knows that just by watching his children do their homework at night.

“They are doing their homework, watching TV, listening to their iPod and playing on their iPad all at the same time,” he said. “It drives me crazy but for them, it’s natural and they seem to be doing all four things really well at the same time.”

What he sees in his home is similar to what now occurs in the workplace, said Dodd, a principal with consulting firm Mercer. Employees nowadays frequently receive massive quantities of information from multiple different sources at the same time. That is why for graduates, the ability to filter and make sense of information — known as cognitive load management — is vital for workplace success, said Dodd.

“At the more basic level, it’s … when you’re on a conference call with four or five people, you hear the keyboard in the background, you’re BlackBerry messaging and texting,” he said. “At the macro level, this is about being able to access data from multiple sources, and cope with data from multiple sources at the same time.”

The pace of change in technology will only continue to increase, and so will the amount of data that becomes available through various communications tools, said Dodd.

“If you were to go to a search engine and you’re trying to find something, you know 99 per cent of the things you get back are not what you need,” he said. “If you magnify that ten-fold, or hundred-fold, and it’s not just Google or Bing, but now 20 different potential sources of data, all of them are throwing data at you at massive quantities. One of the key abilities, I think, in the future is how to make sense of that amount of data, and how you can access what data is useful and what isn’t.”

It isn’t enough just to know how to sort through information behind a computer screen. Dodd expects that the workplace will just become increasingly virtual in the future. Globalization and a major shift in connectivity has brought down barriers so that people can work remotely, and easily collaborate with someone halfway across the world without ever having to meet them in person.

However, that means interpersonal and cross-cultural skills are more important than ever.

“The workplace is, and has been for a while, and will continue to change into, a very heterogeneous workplace,” said Dodd. “To ultimately work with people, you need to be able to — even in a connected, multimedia world working with whatever the equivalent of email or text is 50 years from now — without any visual clues or necessary spoken word clues, understand what’s going on in the minds of the people you’re working with who may be thousands of miles from you.”

These cross-cultural collaboration and communication abilities are skills Simon Fraser University teaches.

“One of the things that’s definitely different from 15, 20 years ago is the world is changing more quickly and people are much more likely to have careers that span multiple companies, multiple cities, multiple countries, even multiple functions,” said Dave Hannah, academic chair of the MBA program at SFU’s Beedie School of Business. “More than ever, they need to work collaboratively with people from different backgrounds, and different countries, and different kinds of training, so they need to be able to work in a collaborative fashion.”

But just because things are changing doesn’t mean fundamental skills such as math, writing, critical thinking, and financial literacy are no longer important. And there is increasing emphasis on environmental sustainability, said Hannah.

“There are increasing regulatory and consumer pressures to be operating in a fashion that is socially responsible and as kind to the environment as possible,” he said. “However, businesses still need to answer to their shareholders. So on the one hand, they need to respond to a new kind of consumer and new regulatory environment. But they still need to understand the balance sheet and financial ratios to know if the company is doing well financially.”

Dodd says hands-on skills that are important today will be relevant many years from now because industries such as transportation, mining and oil and gas are heavily invested in long-term assets and will always need people who have the skills and knowledge to operate those assets.

“If TransLink buys a fleet of buses, they’re assuming that fleet of buses have got a 20-, 30-year life,” he said. “That means 20, 30 years from now, the likelihood is they still need people who can operate those buses, who can run bus schedules, and who can keep that fleet of buses on the road. Some of the tools and technology around those things may change, but the basic essence of many of those jobs 10, 20, 30 years from now, will still be the same.”

 Originally published: The Vancouver Sun

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