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Future competencies for Sri Lankans: Rhetoric and reality

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I was humbly happy to be the first Sri Lankan to speak at Fiji Annual HR Convention. It gave me a wonderful opportunity to meet warm people of another island nation. With booming tourism and bountiful natural resources, it appears as one of the most ‘developed’ economies among the ‘developing’ countries in the Pacific. I spoke on the future of HR leadership required for business growth and social development. Today’s column is a reflection of what I essentially shared with a large gathering of Fiji CEOs and HR professionals, and with relevance to us in particular. 


Future belongs to those who create it. In fact, we Sri Lankans, are doing it in multiple fronts thanks to some enthusiastic professionals. The adequacy of political patronage for such initiatives is questionable. As it is often said, we are increasingly moving towards a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. We see many political rumblings with multiple signals, retarding the growth focus. Our neighbouring nations such as Bangladesh are much focused in their development plans and steadfast in their growth momentum. Will they beat us in economic front in maintaining higher growth rate towards becoming a vibrant economy in South Asia, as the way they beat us in cricket? Loads of food for thought, I believe. 

Future competencies in focus

It was amazingly consistent, the deliberations I participated in three recent international conferences, Pune and Ahmadabad in India recently and now in Fiji. Competencies are the measurable or observable knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviours critical to successful job performance. Choosing the right set of competencies is core for consistent performance expected by an employee. What was echoed as future competencies can be easily labelled as ABCDE. Let’s see what they are.

A: Analytical thinking 

Irrespective of whether our background is from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) or not, the future demands us to be analytical. With the massive inflow of information, selecting, prioritising, focusing and deciding are key with regards to speedy actions. If we do not become smart in this terrain, what possibly could happen will be ‘analysis paralysis’. 

It further invites us to work systematically and logically to resolve problems, identify causation and anticipate unexpected results. It also involves managing issues by drawing on own experience and knowledge and calls on other resources as necessary. Moreover, undertaking complex tasks and breaking them down into manageable parts in a systematic way, thinking multiple possible causes and anticipating consequences of situations, thinking of possible alternatives for a situation, recognising and reconciling data discrepancies, identifying information needed to effectively solve problems, weighing the pros and cons of options and alternatives and systematically changes variables to determine effects on the whole are other associated activities.

At a time when there is a conscious effort to shift GCE (AL) students from arts stream to STEM areas, the emphasis on analytical skills is very relevant. Sharpness of reasoning than getting overly emotional in decision making is what is acutely required at many social fronts. 

B: Business savviness 

Having a holistic understanding about the world of business is essential for any manager to perform and progress. Future demands us to move beyond our functional silos in becoming broader in our perspectives encompassing wider perspectives. Narrow specialty should pave way for multi-skilling, perhaps retaining some specialty. 

If I take an HR executive as an example, is he/she knowing the business realities such as market conditions, competitor activities, opportunities and threats out there and the key people requirements accordingly? I still recall, when I interviewed CEOs of South Asian countries, as a part of my doctoral research, a significant majority of them expressed that “my HR person knows HR, but he/she does not know business”. Partnering with the core business processes in getting connected to business related decision making is key for a collective contribution towards corporate success. 

As a nation are we there is a big question mark. Both the public and private sectors alike, what we sadly see missing is the much needed ‘holistic thinking’. How people pursue their personal agendas with a narrow ulterior perspective with gross ignorance or glaring inconsistency is very pathetic to observe. 

C: Creative mindset

Creative thinking is a mental activity, which produces new ideas or new insights. It does this by de-patterning or re-patterning thoughts. In fact, our mind is the sum total of our memories, images, desires, expectations, beliefs, feelings and other such mental processes. Thinking is therefore a sequence of images and events, which constitutes our mind. 

Creativity involves breaking patterns and thinking out of the box. A mind pattern based on traditional, or stale perceptions should give rise to a fresh new wave of creative thinking. The result is the generation of new ideas. Warren Bennis described creativity as a dimension of a ‘new paradigm’ for managers. 

Despite the proliferation of automation, robotics and other vistas with Artificial Intelligence (AI), human creativity will be much high in demand in the continuing era of imagination. Whether we make a conscious effort to foster creativity among the school children, leading to imagination and innovation is a question mark. 

D: Digital diligence 

 Technology has always been an enhancer of our work. From adding machine to the advanced computer this was the case. Such extensive applications are broadly categorised as digital transformations. When integration of digital devices to our daily lives happening at an increasingly rapid pace, it is the survival of the fittest in being digitally diligent. In simple terms, it is about the smartness one demonstrates in embracing the change with regards to changing technology.

It was Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian-American economist who first spoke of a ‘gale of creative destruction’ in order to sustain economic growth. We can see a parallel to that in the now popular use of the term ‘disruption’. Prof. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School, who is widely regarded as the concept initiator of disruption, says that a disruption displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile. Whilst being disruptive on one hand, it is creative on the other hand. 

“We are witnessing profound shifts across all industries, marked by the emergence of new business models, the disruption of incumbents and the reshaping of production, consumption, transportation and delivery systems,” observes Klaus Schwab, in his most recent book, ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. 

Are we reaping the benefits of our digital initiatives? Perhaps to some extent. Creation of information and Communication Agency (ICTA) and now a fully-fledged ministry for digital infrastructure appear as constructive steps. Being ahead in South Asia with 4.5 G mobile communication technology is another sign to say that we have positive trends to encourage the society to be more digitally diligent. 

E: Emotional maturity 

In order to harmonise the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) we need to foster Emotional Intelligence (EI). What requires is AI -EI synergy in being high tech and high touch. EI is a capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships (Goleman, 1995). Despite many subsequent presentations and interpretations, I still prefer the five key components of EI advocated by Goleman. They are self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, empathy and effective relationships.

If I am to single out, empathy is the key. In order to ensure lasting relationships and sustainable partnerships, one needs to demonstrate empathy. We need to make a conscious effort to move from taking one-sided emotionally-laden erratic decisions to a more mature platform. Sri Lankans have a far a way to go in this respect.

ABCDE Competencies vs. Connections 

I see a Human Resource issue at the macro level baffling the national leaders. How to pick the right person to the right position, especially with regards to the key ones from a national perspective is essential. We have started to see some displeasure expressed by a section of the public through social media about certain appointments.

It is pertinent to mention what David Oglivy, the advertising tycoon, had to say with respect to hiring: “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs, but if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we will become a company of giants”. In order to hire people with potential, the hiring process has to be professionally designed and executed.

Challenges in creating future 

Leaders should be performers in practicing what they preach. They inspire, influence and initiate in such a manner to ignite result-oriented action. In contrast, laggards are passengers. They hamper the progress by being lazy and lethargic. Indecisiveness resulting in inaction is often common in their approach. 

Do we see more leaders or laggards? The answer lies in the results they achieve. It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Living with leaders and laggards leave us less number of choices for achievement. Leaders have to be far more effective to overcome the ineffectiveness of laggards. 

Way forward 

“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today” so said Abraham Lincoln. We need to embrace competencies required for future in the present itself. We need to train not only the current managers but also the emerging leaders in becoming future-proof. ABCDE is one clear way of awakening to the required competencies and to take key strategic initiatives accordingly. 

It reminds me what I learnt from my alma mater: ‘Disce aut Discede’ in Latin meaning ‘Learn or Depart’. I think we need to interpret it in the contemporary private and public domain as ‘Perform or Depart’. 

(The writer can be reached through director@pim.sjp.ac.lk, ajantha@ou.edu or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)

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