Adept at Adapting UFE: A Crucial Skill

May be about 250 years old, formal employment in private enterprises is relatively a younger phenomenon. Following a slow period of proto-industrialization, the first industrial revolution spans from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century. It witnessed the emergence of mechanization, a process that replaced agriculture with industry as the foundations of the economic structure of society. Mass extraction of coal along with the invention of the steam engine created a new type of energy that pushed forward all processes thanks to the development of railroads and the acceleration of economic, human and material exchanges. Other major inventions such as forging and new know-how in metal shaping gradually drew up the blueprints for the first factories and cities as we know them today. Industrialization created formal employment.

Barring very few jobs requiring very lofty proficiency and knowledge, most jobs have been created not through any need for an exclusive domain-expertise but as a requirement for an amalgam of multiple skills. Most of these jobs do not have any underlying founding discipline. These jobs have tended to attract people who could not succeed in their field of preferred proficiency by being too applied and/or too heterodox and/or simply not good.

This is the context that could possibly explain the subsequent success of vocational schools and business schools.

A key reason could be that vocational and business education has gradually served as a creator of “universal function expertise” (UFE) and “universal function technology” (UFT). For example, internet are technologies/innovations that have multiple applications and are scalable (consider FaceBook or Amazon algorithms). Vocational and business education imparted knowledge and skills which in part share these characteristics of UFE.

Vocational Schools kept improving in numerous ways adding new materials to their curriculum and focussing on emerging processes and tools. Business schools themselves kept improving drawing on their disciplinary foundations of economics, sociology, psychology and quantitative methods while increasingly aiming to adapt to business reality and develop and improve new theories for their own purposes.

Things have actually been slightly more nuanced than the mere focus of education on relevance and usefulness; but they are however not going to be always so good. Vocational and business educators have succeeded only when they have focussed on teaching, engagement, relevance and impact; otherwise they have simply fallen by the wayside.

The World Development Report 2019, of which a draft has now been placed in the public domain, is focussing on ‘The Changing Nature of Work’ and contains some uncomfortable truths.

It is true that in some advanced economies and middle-income countries manufacturing jobs are being lost to automation. Workers involved in routine tasks that can be “coded to machine language” are most vulnerable to replacement. However, technology provides opportunities to create new jobs, increase productivity, and deliver effective public services. Through innovation, technology generates new sectors or tasks. The forces of automation and innovation will shape employment in the future.

Innovations are changing the basis of competition in many markets. This is also changing the business-critical roles — jobs which enable businesses to be differentiated for their competitors and deliver success while executing the business strategy. Businesses will be forced to rethink the talent they will need to play these business-critical roles in the future.

Investing in human capital is the priority to make the most of this evolving economic opportunity. For individuals already in jobs, the implications are huge. If these changes are to take place in less than a decade, the challenge for the people in jobs would be to remain relevant through and after such changes.

Complex economic environment, rising social expectations and fluctuating ideological shifts, technological advances and personal aspirations; and it’s clear that individuals are hard-pressed to structure a coherent formula to address all of this.

Factors such as immigration and neo-protectionist policies by governments are going to contribute to the confusion. And so would increasing supply and competition from numerous sources including new national markets and alternative providers. The question whether competition harms or helps expand the market remains an open one.

Inclusion of ethics, governance and sustainability–related issues in the knowledge-skills-expertise triad will be in focus. These issues would still follow rather than lead business strategy. Dealing with social and economic sustainability requires a focus on ethics and morality –this can come from philosophy. The influence of philosophy and epistemology on business and vocational studies has so far been minimal. Antitrust action requires incorporating law. Law and economics have found applications in the corporate governance debate but here, too, managers mostly followed the economists’ emphasis on shareholder value. Things are changing, but slowly. Incorporating law into ones knowledge-skills-expertise can help. The same applies to politics. The current power of big tech is much more than market power — it has morphed into political power. It is important that power becomes a major subject in managerial skills — hence politics and geo-politics as well.

Three types of skills are increasingly important in labour markets: advanced cognitive skills (such as complex problem-solving), socio-behavioural skills (like team work), and skill-combinations that are predictive of adaptability (e.g., reasoning, self-efficacy). An appreciation of liberal arts, philosophy, economics and sociology will help people become adept at adaptability and help them succeed.

People with necessary skills for the World during and past 4.0 waves would come from the existing workforce only. For the talented from amongst those of the 3.0 era, the way forward for remaining relevant is by becoming proficient at acclimatising their UFE to the transforming changes.


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To ensure the quality of the discussion, comments may be edited for clarity, length, and relevance. Comments that are overly promotional, mean-spirited, or off-topic may be deleted.

Published by

Mukul Gupta

*Educator, researcher, author and a friendly contrarian* Professor@MDIGurgaon

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