Published on November 14th, 2016 | by David Bott

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It looks like the Jedi got it right – but then so did the Borg

Back in early May, the CBI held its annual conference at the University of Warwick. Alongside the plenary sessions, there were two workshop, one on digital skills and one on innovation. From what I saw, the innovation workshop ended up being mainly about the skills needed to be innovative, as many participants said they couldn’t be innovative because they did not have the right skills in their organisation. There seemed to be an assumption that if only they could access those skills, life would be easier.

Skill is one of those words that has morphed its definition in recent times. The dictionary definition of the word is “the ability to do something well.” The important word seems to be the last one. But the focus of discontent seems to be on adding new skills to an organisation.

Every organisation must have some skills. They would not be able to start unless they had the skill of identifying a problem, the skill of envisaging a solution, the skill of raising money, the skill of assembling a workforce and so on. How well they apply these skills will determine how successful they are, but they do seem to have them at some basic level.

It appears that it is the introduction of people with new skills that is difficult, although there are many examples of this being done successfully in fiction. As anyone brought up on a diet of Star Wars films knows, a promising new Jedi starts as a padawan to a Jedi Knight. The internet is woolly on this subject but it looks like you are a padawan for 25 years. Observers of the films can see the relationship move from something akin to babysitting in the early days to what looks more like a partnership of equals. The term apprentice these days is most often applied to those learning physical skills, but there is obvious value in the idea that anyone new to an organisation spends time learning the history and goals of the organisation and to recognise and integrate with the skills the organisation already has. This can be managed within the organisation, but given most apprentices join early in their training, there is often the need for further, complementary input from an educational establishment. It is interesting to reflect that the assumption is that “learning” is solely carried out in early career, whereas those of us who have been around for some time will recognise that learning is never finished.

But there is another side to this – and another example of good practice from a pervasive science fiction series. The Borg are from the Star Trek franchise, albeit The Next Generation. The Borg do not triumph by destroying their enemies – they assimilate them into their own race. There is a suggestion that their drive is towards perfection and by adding new capabilities to their own, they will move in that direction. So, what can a learning organisation learn from the Borg? Whilst those new to an organisation do not have all the necessary skills to be successful, they obviously have some relevant ones – which is presumably why they were recruited – but my experience is that they have others that could add value if recognised and used. Do organisations check what skills their new recruits have outside those for which they are recruited? Do they look for how those skills can add to the organisational skill-base?

Both of these approaches are concerned with the front end of skills acquisition. Other organisations are also worried about “losing” skills of older workers. There are a couple of ways to address this, but sadly no science fiction examples (that I know of!). A “reverse apprenticeship,” where the departing worker is twinned with a younger worker takes time, but can often give good results. And there are more formal “information audit” processes where people from outside the organisation come in capture and organise the knowledge held by the departing worker. But maybe if the front end and lifetime approach to skills sharing within an organisation were more common, the loss of people would not equate to the loss of skills?

All of these approaches start with the recognition that ensuring people in the organisation know their own skills and possess the ability to recognise and learn from others. It is chastening that popular stories can use examples of good practice in the area to fire our leisure imagination, but we do not seem capable of using these examples in our work life.

 

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David Bott is Principal Fellow at WMG. After 26 years with BP, Courtaulds and ICI, spent in both their corporate centres and business units, David began a love affair with start-ups 10 years ago. He was diverted into spending 7 years setting up and directing the Technology Strategy Board (now rebranded as Innovate UK), the UK's innovation agency.

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