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The new normal? Why average is the enemy of tomorrow’s talent

In this age of big data and predictive analytics, is the future more or less predictable? Markus Hengstschläger, director of the Institute of Medical Genetics, argues it is both and that this has a big impact on how we nurture talent

Child catching balls

Recently in a discussion I was one of three scientists asked a deceptively simple question: how do we prepare the next generation for success in the future? But then something was added for which we weren’t prepared – in times of digital transformation, of the Internet of Things or of artificial intelligence, is the future more, or less predictable? And how does the element of predictability change how we nurture our future talent?

The first scientist agreed with the sentiment that the future is becoming more predictable. He cited the rise of big data and predictive analytics. Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon already know everything about everything and everyone. He thought the future had never been as predictable as it is today, because of the volume and speed at which data is being collected, interpreted, traded and used for future predictions.

Not so, posited the second. How else could you explain the advent of Brexit, of Donald Trump as US president or e.g. the global migration flows? The VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity)-future, surely, has never been so unpredictable.

If we don’t know the talents that we need in the future, how can we ensure the next generations are best placed in the workforce?

I was the third to speak and needed my own point of view. It depends, I hedged. Let’s instead speak of those two futures in tandem, one predictable and one unpredictable.

Can we even say for certain whether one is increasing in relation to the other?

We judge everything scientifically at our peril in such an information rich era. In the age of Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al I like to use the phrase “communicated information”. The uncheckered rise of fake news demonstrates just how difficult it has become to filter out what components of these communications are useable or even correct.

What can (or should) be decided by gut feeling and intuition, what weight should we place on data, facts and numbers? There certainly seems to be consensus that, in today’s fast-paced and hectic world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, there are ever increasing demands on people in professional life.

How, then, do we nurture today’s talent for life in the times of Industry 4.0? If, as I believe, both futures (predictable and unpredictable) are increasing for each of us, we need to be prepared to meet both as well as we can.

Let’s take the simple example of a teacher and a  group of 20 students in a school gymnasium. Those students are tasked to catch balls thrown into the playing court, and there are two types of ball in play – ones where the students can tell where the balls will arrive and ones where they can’t. Predictable and unpredictable. And both are coming faster and faster.

In the predictable future it is easy to know where to position yourself in order to catch those balls. Less so, the unpredictable. In times of digital transformation, how we prepare for the unpredictable is key, and something we, as a society generally get wrong.

So, as an expert, I look back at what has happened previously in sports halls. (Looking back to the financial crisis 2008 can lead to conclusions about how to avoid the financial crisis 2008 in future, but not really how to avoid an unpredictable event.) My data tell me that the balls came five times from the left bottom and five times from the right top. Let’s take those statistics and use them to predict the future.

Although for problems like this simply calculating the average is clearly the wrong approach; the average is still used too often in today´s society: the average patient, the average customer, the average employee... On average those balls are coming from the middle. Predictable, right? But of those 20 students standing in the middle of that gym hall, what are the chances that they’ll catch an unpredictable ball at all? It’s not zero but it’s certainly not high.

Perhaps our teacher embraces a strategy of individualism and decides to place those 20 students all over the hall in order to cover the space. No two students ever in the same position. But let’s be real – what child ever stands in a hall in the same place just waiting for the ball to come to him? Children will run around. They’re individuals and know they need to be flexible in order to stand a better chance of catching those unpredictable balls. Recognising the value of directed and undirected education – in tandem.

When we know where our balls are coming from, we can promote that talent in our children. When we don’t, it’s harder: if we don’t know the talents that we need in the future, how can we ensure the next generations are best placed in the workforce? It has to be a balancing act of directed and undirected education.

In the first scenario, the predictable future, teachers can directly transfer knowledge to their students. If you know today what knowledge is needed tomorrow, you can direct the education of the next generation towards learning it. It’s valuable and it’s useable.

Reading, writing, arithmetic and foreign languages are but a few examples that come to mind as indispensable tools for the future. Today, our industries are calling for further investment and participation in the MINT (mathematics, information technology, natural sciences and technology) or STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) – two acronyms standing for pretty much the same thing. If it is true that we need more graduates with such degrees for future success, then everything seems to be clear. But is it really true?

Because even if it seems predictable today, the tide may turn tomorrow. But as a scientist, the most exciting path in meeting the foreseeable, unpredictable future is developing your own new ideas and innovating.

The first path is about repeating what we know, the second is about encouraging innovation; training for innovation is more flexible, creative and unpredictable.

We need to instil in our youth the competencies to generate answers to questions and situations they have never heard about. This requires broader knowledge, developing competencies and, according to the American psychologist Howard Gardner, both intra- and interpersonal intelligence, creativity, flexibility, individuality, motivation, problem-solving readiness and much, much more.

So why, then, are we as educators, employers and mentors so fixated in a race to the average? Surely we should strengthen strengths rather than combating weaknesses.

This is an extract from Fast Forward Files: Opening Up, co-authored by Markus Hengstschläger 

Published 20 March 2019. This extract from Fast Forward Files: Opening Up, co-authored by Markus Hengstschläger is ©2019 and reproduced with permission from Molden Verlag. The book is available now, priced at £28

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