For humans to remain relevant in the future world of work, we must encourage individuality and creative thinking. Specifically, there are four key competencies that I believe everyone needs in order to work effectively across departments, understand how their individual contributions fit into the bigger picture and ultimately thrive in a future of increasingly advanced technology.
Those four competencies are
- financial acumen,
- data literacy,
- commercial acumen, and
- human skills.
I won’t dwell too much on human skills—also referred to as soft skills, EQ, and social and emotional skills.
For now, I’d like to focus on the other three hard skills that should be at the core of everyone’s continuous improvement journey. In the future, organizations will still have experts in finance, IT, human resources, sales and marketing, and so forth. However, it will be increasingly vital for every member of the organization to have some base-level competency in each of those fields.
Without some level of fluency, there will be no way for members of different departments to speak the same language, misinterpretation and competition will persist, trust will erode as interdepartmental competition rages on, and disillusionment will run rampant.
We need to apply more effort as a society and as educators to making math more approachable and relevant. Why? Because our businesses and institutions are populated by millions who lack the necessary numeracy skills to be effective in their jobs. They’ve been conditioned to think that math doesn’t matter in the real world when math is literally the language of business!
If math is the language of business, then everyone who works in a business should have some level of fluency in that language. Unfortunately, we live in a world where financial literacy and numeracy are at or near all-time lows.
First and foremost, we have to make mathematics more approachable and relevant in our primary and secondary schools. We must also change the language we use with our children when we talk about math. The current vernacular that math is scary, hard, and reserved for geeks is hurting our society and economy. The beauty of mathematics is everywhere—the Fibonacci sequence shows up in many of the architectural achievements we marvel at, and fractals show up everywhere in the natural structures of plants and animals.
Before we can substantially raise the bar on financial acumen, we need our next generation of business leaders to be financially literate. Again, this starts in our schools and in our homes. Just because “the computer does all the work” in banking and finance doesn’t mean we shouldn’t understand the mechanics of how to balance a checkbook or what debt burdens are appropriate for a particular income level.
You can also start hiring with numeracy and financial acumen as a formal part of the process, even for non-math-specific roles. As employers, if we keep giving our team members a “pass” on numeracy, it won’t be considered important, and nothing will change.
If you’re thinking about upskilling, I would focus on the following areas (in addition to basic numeracy):
- Basic statistical concepts like the mean, median, mode, variance and standard deviation are essential to analyze and interpret datasets. The ability to properly formulate and test a hypothesis is a key skill for any decision-maker.
- Probability theory usually scares most students away and is the hardest to teach because many instructors focus on the theory and not the practice. As a leader, your ability to accurately estimate the likelihood of potential outcomes from imperfect information is a huge part of your job.
- Various elements of discrete mathematics are also very useful. Set theory, basic mathematical logic and game theory can also help with decision-making.
There’s no excuse for any business leader to not have developed strong financial acumen. However, perhaps the least valid excuse is the one I admit to having used in the past: a perception that we are “done” with learning after a certain age.
The world today is increasingly filled with gadgets, devices, and “smart” objects, each of which collects a trove of data. Every click, every tap, every interaction with hardware and software is being recorded, and the data that results has immense power. In fact, data has surpassed oil to become the world’s most valuable resource.
Whether you’re a small business owner or running a Fortune 500 company, you’re generating more data today, relative to your size, than ever before. As a leader and an individual contributor, your ability to be creative and drive your business forward is going to rely, in large part, on how you’re leveraging the troves of data that your business generates.
That is why a base-level understanding of data—how it works, where it comes from, what it can and can’t do, how to visualize it, how to incorporate it into products and services, and how to harness its power effectively—is going to be an essential skill for employees of the future.
If you’re in HR, for example, it’s increasingly vital that you understand the emerging field of people analytics. If you’re in sales and marketing, it’s important to be able to understand how data can be leveraged to produce more accurate forecasts and how it can serve as a tool for reaching customers and offering them more-personalized products and services. The list of applications goes on and on. Not a single corner of the organization, no matter its size, will be left untouched by the influence of data in the future.
Understanding the data that is being created, captured and stored by the organization—and being able to think practically and creatively about how it can, should and will be applied to the business—will be a core competency in the future workforce.
One of the primary factors that ultimately leads to a team member’s disengagement and disillusionment is a feeling that their contributions don’t have a meaningful impact on the success of the organization. Feeling like we’re part of a team that depends on our input is ultimately what drives us to show up to work each day excited to contribute.
When employees begin to feel like cogs in a machine or, worse, can’t draw a clear line between their individual efforts and the success of the organization as a whole, they quickly become disillusioned and disengaged.
Without a basic understanding of how their product or service is used “in the wild,” team members are at risk of becoming unmotivated to help build on the company’s reputation, brand awareness or product-market fit. However, those who have even a base-level understanding of how they fit into the broader picture are better positioned to combine that knowledge with their unique expertise to spot inefficiencies, identify new opportunities and help the business evolve and grow. Today such competencies are nice to have, but in the future, I believe they will become a base-level requirement.
Again, this is not to suggest that every employee should be an expert in these areas. Understanding how the activities of the organization fit together within the broader marketplace, however, can help individuals become better contributors, break down silos between departments and rally employees around objectives that are bigger than their individual roles.
This article was adapted from the book, Balancing Act: Teach Coach Mentor Inspire (Kaplan Publishing, a division of Kaplan, Inc.; April 6, 2021), written by Dr. Andrew Temte, CFA.