Workforce Not Keeping Pace with "C" Change

New research finds employees must excel at the "four Cs" of critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity to succeed in a rapidly changing workforce, but company executives and managers are underwhelmed at their ability to do so.

Thursday, March 21, 2013
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More than half of the 768 managers and executives who participated in the December 2012 Critical Skills Survey commissioned by the American Management Association said there is significant room for improvement among their employees in the skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. If they'd been asked to give their employees a grade on these skills, one suspects it would have been a "C."

That's noteworthy because three-quarters of those same managers and executives said they believe these skills and competencies will become more important to their organizations in the next three to five years, due to factors such as the pace of change in business, global competition and the nature of how work is now conducted."I think the results, in general, are disappointing," says Manny Avramidis, senior vice president of global human resources at the New York-based AMA. "But they're a true representation of reality. I think the general thrust in corporate America would be to improve in these areas."

About one in eight survey respondents reported being a human resources officer. Others were from a myriad of other departments, including general management, operations and IT. Their organizations ran the gamut from manufacturing, business services and financial services to government.

Of the four Cs, the respondents ranked critical thinking most important in growing their organization, followed by communication skills, creativity and innovation, and collaboration and team building. Yet, more than 62 percent said their employees were average or below average in communication skills, and 61 percent said the same regarding creativity and innovation. A little more than half of those surveyed said their workers were average or below average in collaboration and team building. Only in critical thinking did a majority of respondents assess their workforce as being above average -- but just barely -- at 50.6 percent.

Another survey of employers, published by the Arlington, Va.-based Society for Human Resource Management in November 2011, provided a harbinger of the AMA survey results. Asked by SHRM what applied skill gaps job applicants have in their industry, 54 percent listed critical thinking/problem solving, 36 percent said teamwork/collaboration and 25 percent said creativity/innovations. Written and oral communications also scored poorly in that survey.

Mary Herrmann, managing director of executive coaching at Chicago-based BPI Group, says she often hears concerns about workers' communication skills. "We hear about it mostly in how people communicate during a presentation," she says. Collaboration or team-building acumen is another common complaint, she adds.

Joe Weinlick, vice president of marketing at the career network, agrees that the need for critical skills is increasingly vital in a knowledge-based economy. But he says the AMA survey results can be viewed more positively. In the area of critical thinking, for example, about 90 percent of the respondents said their workers were average or above average. Put another way, only about 10 percent were below average. Nearly 87 percent of employees were judged to be average or above in communication skills. In each of the four categories, fewer than half of employees were said to be above average.

"The challenge we see is ... companies now, especially after the recession, are under pressure to hire somebody who can come in and make an immediate impact," Weinlick says. The trend Weinlick sees is for employers to seek new hires who can make a big impact immediately, leaving little time to grow into the job. "Everything has been sped up," he says.

HR plays a critical role in improving workers' critical skills. "I think that's where training can be incredibly valuable," Weinlick says.

"As the world changes, we need to up our game," says Maureen Metcalf, CEO of Metcalf & Associates, a management consulting and leadership development firm in Columbus, Ohio. "We expect something different now, and many organizations have not emphasized the importance of making these changes. While I would expect employees to see the need to change, organizations must also send a strong message and provide resources to support growth - even if it is recommended self-study."

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The AMA survey found that roughly five in nine of the managers and executives say experienced workers possess critical skills more than recent graduates do. But an even stronger majority believes it is easier to develop these skills in students and recent graduates than in seasoned employees.

Those figures point to the need for more senior employees to "always be hitting the refresh button" and keeping their skills current, Herrmann says. They might want to consider a "reverse mentor" in which younger, more tech-savvy colleagues can teach them a few things. Experienced employees may find that embarrassing. Younger colleagues may question why seasoned workers don't have the same skills as them. "Your ego has got to be in check," Herrmann says.

"We have so much to learn from our younger generation," Herrmann adds.

A majority of survey respondents said that professional development and training, in-house job training, mentoring, one-on-one coaching and job rotations are effective methods of developing employees' critical skills.

"Each has an important role. Mentoring and coaching can be provided internally and externally and both are effective if coaches are vetted," Metcalf says.

"The best teacher for all four components is having models we can look to in the organization," Herrmann says. "I would want to see more action training going on" in which teams of employees comprised of some with high levels of critical skills and some with lesser levels combine to develop a product or solve a problem..

The less-skilled employees "actually get to witness it being done effectively," Herrmann says.

Avramidis also likes teaming employees from different departments to work on a project. "You really have to set the culture where it is expected and accepted. You train your managers in how to create that environment. HR's job is to produce the most capable employees. I'd say they're the chief contributor toward making sure these things happen."

One way to do so is to base employee appraisals and pay raises on achieving critical skills goals and behaviors, Metcalf says. To do otherwise, she says, may "inadvertently be driving the wrong behavior."

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