How Do We Build 21st Century Business Skills?

business skills“How do you teach people to be more comfortable with ambiguity?”

That was the question from the person in charge of Talent for a big bank at a workshop we ran with them recently at UQ.

My response was: “The first thing we need to do is give them projects to do where we can’t know what the right answer is in advance.”

Of course, we often avoid doing this in universities, mainly because we’re uncomfortable with ambiguity ourselves. It’s a lot easier to teach a framework, then assess recall. But that doesn’t really work today (did it ever?) – and if we teach that way, we’re doing people a disservice.

What are the capabilities that managers need to be effective today? Here’s what the World Economic Forum says, based on a large survey of organisations:

wef skills
Dealing with uncertainty isn’t on the list, but it’s a central part of cognitive flexibility, complex problem solving, and creativity. How do we build these skills? Now that I’m an MBA Director, that’s a pretty important question to me!

It’s not really an information issue. We’ve known what to do as managers for a long time. And when Mary Parker Follett, Frank Knight, Elton Mayo and others started writing about management in the 1920s, this information started to be systematised. And there was another wave of high-quality thinking about management in the 1950s from Edith Penrose, Alfred Chandler, Peter Drucker and just to start with. The knowledge of how to deal with uncertainty, and how to manage, have been readily available to everyone for 100 years now – and yet we still struggle with how to do it. Why?

It’s not an information problem – it’s an action problem.

Which brings us back to my answer in the workshop: “The first thing we need to do is give them projects to do where we can’t know what the right answer is in advance.”

I’ve experimented with a few different ways to do this. We collaborated with the Wharton Business School for eight years on their now sadly-ended Global Consulting Practicum program. These projects were great. They were collaborative projects of five UQ MBA students and five from Wharton. We did them for actual clients that were trying to enter or expand their business in the North American market. The projects ran for six months, and they were packed with uncertainty. IN some cases, the teams didn’t nail down the answers until five months and twenty-nine days into the project!

These projects worked best when they were discovery projects – most commonly it was looking for the business model that the client needed to successfully grow their business in the US.

The projects were life-changing for many of us involved with them. I think a big part of why is that the level of uncertainty was so high – it forced us to try new things, to learn (a lot!), and to grapple with ambiguity head-on. Both the learning outcomes for students and the commercial outcomes for clients have been fantastic.

I’ve had similar experiences working with the CSIRO in developing the ON Primeprogram designed to help researchers achieve impact with their science. The issue here is that great new ideas need new business models – it’s another discovery problem.

We’ve experimented with shorter programs, that mostly focus on giving people the knowledge they need to go do the work. I’m not sure that these are as successful as longer programs that force people to do the work. We often need that extra push to do things that make us feel uncomfortable – especially the things that make us realise that there are things we don’t know.

This is also why it’s valuable for people to do entrepreneurship and innovation projects as part of their study. It’s not necessarily because we want to launch a bunch of new businesses – but trying to build something is a great example of working on a problem where we don’t know the answer in advance. This is why I’ve worked hard to contribute to initiatives like iLabIdea Hub and our new UQBS Startup Academy on campus.

Since the GCP program ended last year, I’ve been working on building a similar experience that more of our MBA students can do. So this year we launched a new MBA Industry Project program at UQ.

The way we pitch it to businesses is: do you have a problem that you know is strategically important, but you don’t currently have the bandwidth within your organisation to find the best solution? If so, we will put a team of MBA on that problem for one semester to help you find the best way forward.

(And if so, and if you’re in Australia, and you’re interested, please get in touch!)

The way we pitch it to students is: if you look at that list of 21st Century capabilities, and agree that they are important, this is the best way to build them.

Will it work? I don’t know – we’re learning ourselves as we build this. But to me, if we don’t offer opportunities like this, we’re not doing our job.

It’s forcing me to be more comfortable with ambiguity too. Which is exciting, and scary. Just like everything else that’s worth doing.