Leadership X.0
13 September 2019

Skills acquired through traditional learning processes are not enough to navigate VUCA contexts. Education should foster the creative development of new skills

“Every man should be capable of all ideas and I believe that in the future he will be”

“Every shred of new truths that is discovered is revolutionary
with respect to what was believed before”

In this article we discuss how the emergence of VUCA contexts changes the very foundation on which traditional school systems have historically been designed, from primary school up to universities. If in the past the educational path provided skills that were sufficient to deal with a reasonably predictable context, these skills are no longer sufficient to deal with VUCA contexts.

Although not sufficient, the skills acquired through the traditional educational path continue to be fundamental to develop quality content and technical skills. To navigate VUCA contexts, in fact, it is necessary to develop new skills that, in part, could be developed within properly revised school and university courses or that, where the school system reveals itself ineffective, should be developed individually by individuals, companies and institutions, outside the traditional school system.

What are the challenges that the new education has to face with the arising of VUCA contexts? The education will have to go beyond learning and encourage the creative development of new skills.

Who of you has not assisted or taken part, with friends or colleagues, to discussions about the growing gaps in the traditional education and university systems to which several governments have repeatedly tried to remedy through reforms? How many times have these reforms turned out to be ineffective? How many of us have even thought that the learning path enabled by the school system had become less and less important as it no longer ensured, as it once did, an effective labor market placement?

We all pay attention to the inadequacies of the system without adequately lingering on the reference context that is no longer predictable, as it has become volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous and, as such, it often requires foreign different skills than those acquired during the school path.

Therefore, it is worth asking if the school system provides its students with suitable and sufficient tools to deal with VUCA contexts. The answer is “no”: at present, the school system is not able to offer such tools, as it has been conceived to provide students with skills suitable for non-complex and predictable contexts.

For years, families, schools, and working environments shaped individuals’ skills. Effective training consisted of acquiring skills, a system of values ​​and abilities which, through practice and experience, would have consolidated skills and good practices.

If successful, this training path allowed individuals to respond positively to the following question: are you able to do things correctly? Although there are still many situations in which individuals, companies and institutions are required to perform their tasks correctly, VUCA contexts increasingly offer us situations in which the real challenge is not “doing things right” but “doing the right thing”.

These two questions can be easily confused because the word “right” appears in both sentences. In reality, there is an important difference:

  • “Doing things correctly” means having a task and deploying the tools to perform the task correctly. For example, if in the past an individual aspired to become a good civil lawyer, he could have targeted the task to become proficient at writing contracts. To this purpose, it was sufficient for him to acquire the technical tools law schools made available and, afterwards, complete a training stage with a good lawyer. This was the typical situation characterizing non-complex and non-uncertain contexts.
  • “Doing the right thing” has a profoundly different implication in that in VUCA contexts it is seldom possible to anticipate the right thing that needs to be done and, therefore, it is seldom possible to understand how to prepare oneself. Let’s consider the same example as above and let’s assume that the individual operates in a VUCA context. By definition, in presence of a complex and uncertain context, our lawyer will not be able to foresee all the possible developments of the context. Therefore, he won’t be able to anticipate what type of contracts he might be required to prepare, and consequently, it will not be enough for him to have successfully completed the traditional university path to become a good lawyer. In other words, chances are that it won’t be enough to effectively master the contractual forms he is familiar with because in VUCA contexts the type of contract that might be required may not be those he has already studied. To do the right thing it will have to be open to acquire new tools, willing to innovate, to interact with professional figures owning skills that are different and complementary to those he owns and to combine those skills in a creative way in order to create the “right” tool ne needs.

At this point, it is reasonable to wonder how the roles of the traditional schooling and training path should change. In other words, how can the school and university system improve the training of its students in order to enable them to cope with VUCA contexts?

Traditional school systems will have to go beyond learning and promote the creative development of new skills.

As always, the school system will have to push the frontier of knowledge forward and transfer the new knowledge to the students in order to ensure a high quality schooling standard. At the same time, it will also have to promote collaborative forms of learning among students in order to stimulate, create and improve their ability to work in teams and develop their ability to identify solutions in a collegial fashion.

However, this will be insufficient to face the challenges arising in a VUCA context, as individuals will be required to go beyond what they have learned and develop new skills in a creative way.

Two are the new key competences that individuals will have to develop: capabilities and rhizomatic thinking.

  • The concept of capability is already widely studied in the literature of strategic management, organizational theory and leadership theory. The capability, which we define as the ability to develop new resources, skills and abilities based on the competences currently available, in order to achieve a new objective, represents an indication of potential of an individual or an organization with reference to a specific task.
  • The rhizomatic thinking, on the other hand, has received attention in the field of philosophy. Even though it offers interesting examples in the field of technology, it has not found application in the field of leadership yet and has found limited interest in innovation theory. The rhizomatic thinking, which we can define as the ability to generate new ideas from the combination and the contamination between existing ideas, has the distinguishing feature of being a generative thinking with a high innovative potential.

In its own way, also the development of capabilities may have a rhizomatic connotation, where the development of new skills is the result of combinations of existing resources, skills and abilities.

It appears obvious why rhizomatic thinking is so important to address a VUCA context: unprecedented challenges are likely to required new ideas, new tools and new solutions.

The development of capabilities and rhizomatic thinking are aptitudes that go well beyond learning. They should not be acquired as technical skills but individually developed based on the context in which individuals operate, the nature of the challenge that individuals face and the quantity, quality and variety of skills to which individuals have access.

Let’s get ready for a future in which solutions, tools and skills will increasingly depend on what we will be able to create and not only of what we have learnt.