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Challenge to adapt as workplaces evolve

TODAY’S workplace probably would not be recognisable to our grandparents. It is worth mulling over what it will look like for our grandkids, or even our children.

Looking at the workplace from the point of view of our training institutions – the organisations charged with developing the next generation of workers – presents a pretty challenging picture.

They have the job of preparing for tomorrow, more often than not, using structures that have a very yesteryear look about them.

At the heart of the issue is the difference between industrial age and knowledge economy workers.

In the good old days most workers were just employed to do a job, which was clearly set out, as quickly and efficiently as possible. The job did not change much from one day to the next because the world didn’t. Life was pretty stable.

The emphasis was on keeping costs down. One size fitted all and there were tight demarcations between where my job finished and your’s began – and anyone who crossed that line should look out.

In one sense it was all very clear and simple and there was no place for initiative. In fact too much initiative could even create problems.

Today – and probably even more so tomorrow – workers need to be responsive, flexible and to show initiative to deal with the changing demands they are likely to have to deal with.

That could be in the form of customers with widely differing expectations through to finding their business under threat of death because a competitor has just come up with a new technology or a new approach that has turned the rules of their industry on its head.

Managing in this environment means that you need all the (human) resources at your disposal ready and able to adjust and shift focus quickly when required.

For the education and training sector this shift isn’t just something of theoretical interest. The rest of us should be pretty tuned in to how they are going as well, our futures could depend on it.

On the one hand formal education and training has spent more than a century capturing a whole collection of skills that had just been held between the ears of master craftsmen, and others. Recording this knowledge, or “codifying it”, has been the key to lifting the educational levels of millions of people.

The only trouble is that, in the new world of the knowledge economy, many of these processes are likely to hold us back. It is not that there still won’t be important skills to hand on. It is that those skills are going to change far more often and quickly than ever and that all those bright eyed students have to understand that. What they are told today will probably change tomorrow – so stay awake.

It is a far cry from grandpa’s confidence in his trade offering him a skill for life.

So trainers, or the training system, has to work on two levels. They have to not only pass on the base skills but get everyone comfortable with a lot more uncertainty. They also have to encourage as many as possible to add to that uncertainty by generating new technologies and techniques of their own.

It is a long way from the “sit down and shut-up” school. Making it happen will require some new attitudes from us all.

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