Monthly Archives: November 2015

Is Education Really Failing Business?

Our graduates aren’t fit for work and if we don’t resolve these problems UK plc will lose competitiveness with the emerging economies’ Many of our graduates aren’t ready for the world of work… You may think this sentiment is a recent phenomenon… In reality, business was saying the same thing 20 years ago when I graduated.
In a business landscape that is increasingly difficult to navigate for business and the new entrant – what is the answer? Over the last 20 years successive UK governments have tinkered with our education system with the aim of making it more ‘rigorous’. For politicians this has meant a greater focus on exam results which of course means more success right? The result. A generation of students who know how to pass exams, stick to formulas and making their schools climb ever higher (or not) in the league tables. They want to get right answers.
Whilst our politicians reach for ever simpler answers to complex problems it seems businesses (and educators of all types) have to wrestle with real problems whose solutions may exist in shades of grey. Although our schools like to teach people the ‘answers’, in our dynamic world there is always ambiguity and decisions that call for calm judgement. Sometimes the boss might need to be challenged and disrupted. However, we continue to tinker with an education system designed in the 19th century that is not set up to deal with 21st century problems.
Our research at Carillion suggests that degree class or grade is not the best predictor of success in the roles offered in our business. In reality a whole host of other factors are much better predictors of a successful graduate. These are behavioural as well intellectual (soft skills). They include the ability to build networks across different teams and departments, the intrinsic drive to achieve, and the ability to find solutions to problems (this is not the same as knowing the answer to a problem). In fact knowing how to find the answer might well be more important than actually knowing when navigating your way through large organisations and different roles.
If this is true in the graduate roles, it is equally true in more senior positions. The skill to make judgements based on limited information, managing people in changing environment can’t be taught…..or can they?
I recently attended the launch of new company, MACAT. They believe (backed by some research) that ‘Critical Thinking’ is the missing link for most of our workforce, not just graduates. Simply defined Critical Thinking is an approach to problem solving, analysis, self awareness and ability maintain curiosity and have the confidence to ask great questions leading to better decisions. The early research suggests that it can be taught or learnt, and when people engage with it, the benefits for business and the individual are valuable.
This is not some new ‘tech’ company that is selling a platform, a host of great minds from the Academic world are arguing the case. Tony McEnery (Dean of Lancaster University) and an expert on Critical Thinking suggests that allowing room for making mistakes and experimentation is the key to innovation, creativity which is good for business and society, yet our education system stifles this.
Whilst it is without doubt the UK needs students to have some rigour in education and improve our uptake of the sciences, this does not mean we discredit or undermine a broad based education in the Humanities.(Sociology, History, Philosophy). These subjects are concerned with inquiry questioning and ambiguity and as suggested earlier we need people to operate in environments that are less predictable, more volatile and more uncertain. In certain jobs technical skill is important – but without the creativity, challenge and bravery business never innovates. Think of James Dyson and Richard Branson (he left school at 16).
It might be easy for business to say that that our education system is failing our students. Maybe we might turn the question around. Is businesses failing our new workers? Do we really know what we are looking for when we recruit graduates or do we rely on tried and tested ways of selection or do we actually measure what we know will be successful in our specific business. If we put a bit more thought into this, we may get great people suited to our environments and we will set people up to succeed. In addition, do we foster environments for them where they can explore, make mistakes and therefore challenge themselves and ultimately our businesses to be truly innovative and cutting edge.
Will future governments be brave and create a rounded education that might be fit for the 21st century? Our children may know how to pass exams in order to keep the schools in their place in the league tables, but are we equipping them with the skills and the desire to continue learning for their whole lives?
Will companies such as MACAT challenge and change the way enterprises, governments and educators approach learning and helping economies become more productive? I guess we have to wait and see…


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