Article: Top six information age skills to nurture

Leadership

Top six information age skills to nurture

Dr. Thomas C. Redman writes a letter to his children and their twenty-something colleagues about the skills that really matter in the information age
Top six information age skills to nurture
 

The boss is usually a customer. The skill required to deal with them is prettty much the same as 'understanding what your boss wants you to do'

 

Information age is not so much about technolgy, as it is about data and information and using them to develop deeper insights, to create new products and improve society

 

I’m sure you see it. You’re different than your parents and in some really important ways - you grew up with a cell phone and iTunes. Nothing can be more natural than surfing the net; you embrace Facebook, and you tweet. You develop your own computer applications (some quite sophisticated) and you know that staying ahead of technology will be essential for your career. All this is a given.

But of course everyone your age knows this as well. Continue on the path you’re on and you’ll be indistinguishable from everyone else, better than your parents perhaps (let us hope and pray that, no matter what, you are better than your parents!), but average in a large crowd seeking challenge, opportunity to contribute, and a satisfying career.

How can you Stand Out?

The answer, I believe, lies in recognizing that the Information Age, which is still in its infancy stage, is not so much about technology, as it is about data and information, and using them to develop deeper insights, to create new products, and improve society. Do these things and you will distinguish yourself, improve your career, enjoy greater satisfaction, and make the world safer, freer, and richer along the way.

Information Age Skills to Nurture

So what are the Information Age skills you should cultivate? Here is my top six.

First is the skill of understanding customers and their needs. The skill is related to the first lesson in career management: ‘understand what the boss wants you to do’ Here the emphasis is on the customer, including ‘the next guys downstream’ and ‘real customers’ (outside the organization). The boss is usually a customer. On one level, the skill is pretty much the same as ‘understanding what the boss wants you to do’, though the focus is horizontal, toward customers, rather than the more usual vertical focus on the boss. However, the active listening needed to understand what is being said is identical.
On a higher level, this skill is more involved - for there are so many customers, with so many needs. Some are arrogant and demanding, others are shy and retiring. Some can’t see past their immediate problems, others are quite visionary. Some are powerful and connected, others are biding their time in the backwater. So the most important component to this skill is the judgment to prioritize customers, to separate their ‘urgent needs’ from the ‘truly important needs’, and to focus a bit more attention on the latter.

The second skill is unemotionally measuring the quality of your work. It is difficult to take a critical look at what you do. It is simply too easy to discount the efforts that are going well, and to attribute your success to hard work and penetrating insight. It is difficult to detach yourself emotionally from the results. I offer no simple prescription for doing so. But if you can detach yourself, it is so much easier to pick out the one or two strengths you wish to build on, and the one or two weaknesses you wish to address.

The third skill is understanding variation. It could just as well be stated as learn how to interpret what lies behind the numbers. In his latest book1 Jack Welch gives a great example, which I will simplify a bit here. Suppose you’re assigned to recommend one of two potential suppliers of research reports. You set up a trial to learn which provides the best reports fastest, obtaining the following ‘time to complete’ data (in days). Note that the average time for both suppliers is six (6) days, so on an average, neither is faster. But the variation in delivery time for Company B is much smaller. And in many situations lower variation is simply better.

Further, understanding the sources of variation helps identify opportunities for improvements. If instead you manage research at Company A, you should be curious to learn why there is so much variation in the time it takes to create research reports. You could learn, for example, that Suzie, who led the development of Report 1, has developed a technique that enables her research team to gather research inputs faster. Sharing her technique can shorten the time required to complete research reports across the company. Both the average time and variation are reduced in the process.

The next two skills are analysis, or knowing how to break a problem or opportunity into smaller pieces and its mirror image, synthesis which is the ability to put things—data and information—together in new ways. I find many good analysts and few good synthesists. Perhaps this is because most academic majors emphasize on analytic skills so we learn about it in school. This being the case, we’ll not say more about analysis.

You didn’t learn synthesis in school. It is a trickier skill to describe, never mind put into practice. Combining real-time GPS data, travel directions, wireless technology and the capabilities of a hand-held device is a good example of synthesizing various data and information, and several technologies into an exciting new service. Another good example is assembling a ‘scorecard’, picking the four or five metrics that best capture your department’s (or your own) performance and prospects. There is no ‘one best choice’ for everyone. A good synthesist can pull a variety of factors together, weigh them according to some intuitive scale, and make a sound choice.

The sixth skill is communication. Quite simply, effective people have made themselves understood. It is easy to point to great speakers, those who are charismatic, tell a good joke and enjoy the limelight as effective communicators. But most effective communicators are anything but charismatic, aren’t particularly funny and don’t enjoy speaking in public. They develop their own style for writing and speaking clearly, and they learn how to use the media available to them. You must do so as well.

Does all this seem incredibly demanding? You bet. No matter. You’re up to the task!
 

Topics: Leadership, Watercooler

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