The sound of skills
When the science teacher in school taught ‘‘Sound’’, for the first time I heard the term ‘‘rarefaction’’. It is that phase where the waves are widely dispersed and cover a lot of distance but are not decipherable. This is followed by a phase of highly contracted waves called ‘‘condensation’’. This is where the audio can be deciphered. It is the alternating rarefaction and condensation phenomenon that lets sound waves travel in space and be audible too. Honestly, I understood this phenomenon only much later in life!
There was this odd occasion when I came in my father’s direct ‘‘line of sight’’. Appearing to be busy, I whizzed past him without making any eye contact. He stopped me and asked, “What are your hobbies?”
Self: “er, I play”
Father: “That’s an extra-curricular activity. What are your interests?”
Self: “I am quite busy with my current activities. I have no time for hobbies.”
Father: “You need to develop some hobbies. They will be useful when you retire.”
Self (in the mind): “retire? I haven’t even started my career. Why should I think about retirement now?”
Era of core competency & specialization
In the late nineties, when the Internet was emerging as an option for conducting business transactions, management guru Gary Hamel popularized the concept of ‘‘core competency’’. As per this concept, organizations were expected to focus on what they were good at and outsource everything else. By doing so, they will achieve specialization and will be able to compete in the global market that was emerging on account of the Internet. Accidentally, India became the back-office for the world – call centers, contract manufacturing, 3rd party logistics, and several other companies emerged, offering specialized services and were called as Industry Verticals.
With the advent of the Internet, business models started to change, and when business online, it became essential to dream about global leadership.
Jobs opened up for ‘‘specialists’’ at workplaces. Deep knowledge in a given subject backed by relevant experience became the criteria for advancing one’s career. Specialists, who fitted into a well-defined role, designated as ‘‘subject matter expert’’ (SME) were lured with astonishing salaries and perquisites. ‘‘Been there, done that’’, was the visa for getting hired. Such became the need for specialization that even the B-schools started offering career-oriented courses – MBA in banking, retail, insurance, software project management, etc.
Young professionals entering the industry were putting in a substantial number of hours at work to learn from the changing times. They were in pursuit of developing in-depth knowledge in their specific roles and were left with no time to pursue anything else. For instance, a salesman’s hobby was to network in the industry and develop more meaningful contacts that he met during events and in social gatherings.
The potential CFO was spending time understanding the new global financial policies, the standards for compliance, and reporting revenues. Likewise, the Operations and HR head were certifying themselves in six sigma, total quality management, and as specialists in compensation and benefits, employee retention, etc. Everyone was specializing in one chosen area and developing themselves for the global market.
From information technology to invasive technology
Over the last two decades, technology has made deep inroads into our lives. Social media, pervasive connectivity through the cloud, and the all-purpose device called the mobile phone have made access to information far easier. Data became Daataa (God), and gave rise to new business opportunities that we are now familiar with. Insights from the analysis of voluminous data started to drive business strategies toward ''hyper-personalization'' – where products and services appear to be personalized by using data models that predicted which customer is likely to consume what kind of product or service based on her past interactions. Technology is invasive – we are now like a goldfish in the glass bowl – everything about us is already known and technology is enabling someone to use that information to induce us with a seemingly compelling offer!
Diversity in the digital era
The work-from-home concept has coalesced professional and personal identities. As professionals, we are expected to ‘‘manage’’ both responsibilities effectively. While everyone seeks to stay focused and organized, the routine day’s work has several distractions and surprises for one to deal with. It is clear, managers and business leaders are not solving an already solved problem by mere adaptation of the solution. The daily problems are different, vague, and most often, unprecedented. ‘‘What is the cause of a poor customer experience?’’ requires the customer experience manager to know the entire process from sourcing to delivery and then about the usage, to attempt offering a solution.
Business challenges have also become very complex.
Solving them requires multiple skill sets – the ability to visualize the big picture; the impact of the solution on people, environment, regulatory authorities, and competition; a multi-disciplinary approach to harmonize processes across functions, and a capability to apply creative knowledge onto logical thinking. This can be the responsibility of a team in an organization. However, every member of the team is expected to know the ‘end-to-end’ process in order to propose a well-optimized solution. While SME is relevant, the individual also now needs to be able to connect the dots beyond the subject to arrive at a solution.
Future is HuTech – Human beings and Technology will be working together. This will affect a new bio-rhythm in human beings relating to thinking and doing. Human beings will need to be creative and logical, practical, and emotional, focused on the long term while producing results in the short term... It is like managing two ends of the same spectrum almost at the same time.
‘‘Expertise’’ in multiple areas will be required. Such expertise develops over a period of time through experiencing and periodic reskilling. Dealing with new challenges will give newer insights which will provide inputs to new ways of solving an emerging problem.
The sound of skilling
The sound wave’s pattern of rarefaction and condensation is a ‘‘sound’’ example for us to look at. A couple of decades back, we were taught, advised, and even nudged to stay focused in one area – the ‘‘stick to your knitting’’ approach paid high dividends. This was the condensation phase of professional careers. In the digital era, and especially in the coming decade, specific expertise will come to us from technologies and we, human beings, will have to be broad-based – working as a generalist. It is the rarefaction phase that carries us through a distance. Adaptability and agility of the mind will be critical skills and the ability to deal with diverse topics will be richly rewarded.
By developing hobbies, we develop our abilities to deal with apparently diverse topics. Hobbies are activities of interest that lead us to think creatively and purposefully. Hobbies, however practical, are emotionally fulfilling activities and develop our capabilities to accept and deal with the inexplicable, the irrational, and the inevitable. It’s never too late to start a hobby!
Like Sound waves, skills in careers also follow the pattern of rarefaction and condensation. From general management to functional experts to multi-disciplinary skills, management, and leadership traits have been transformed over time. Experts indicate that skills have taken shapes of ‘I’, ‘T’ and. In the future, will it be the shape of a comb? Perhaps yes! However, I believe it to be like the piano – there are the high and low notes, the melody, and harmony. While no two keys produce the same sound, each one by itself is an expert in creating a sound. When orchestrated, the same piano keys produce music. That’s what we need to do in the coming decade – learn to skill ourselves mentally and emotionally, through formal training, and hobbies.
Wishing you a wonderful decade ahead!