Wagner on New Workplace Capacities

Harvard University Education professor Tony Wagner speaks to employers about the kinds of workers they value.

In April 2006, I was on my way to give a speech at an educators’ conference outside of Minneapolis. On my flight, I happened to sit next to Clay Parker, the president of the Chemical Management Division of BOC Edwards—a company that, among other things, makes the machines and supplies the chemicals for the manufacture of microelectronics devices, including silicon semiconductors and flat-panel displays. It turned out that he had three children and was deeply interested in education issues. I also found out that, as CEO, he chooses to be very involved in his company’s hiring of new employees. For the last few years, I’d been reading about the rapidly changing world of work and had grown increasingly concerned that our schools weren’t adequately preparing students for today’s workplace. I’d decided that I wanted to interview employers about the skills they now look for when they hire young people. So I asked Parker what qualities he most wants in a potential new employee. I expected a list of technical skills— especially since Parker is an engineer by training—but I was way off the mark.

“First and foremost, I look for someone who asks good questions,” Parker responded. “Our business is changing, and so the skills our engineers need change rapidly, as well. We can teach them the technical stuff. But for employees to solve problems or to learn new things, they have to know what questions to ask. And we can’t teach them how to ask good questions—how to think. The ability to ask the right questions is the single most important skill.”

“What other skills are you looking for?” I asked, expecting that he’d jump quickly to content expertise.

“I want people who can engage in good discussion—who can look me in the eye and have a give and take.”

“I don’t understand,” I confessed.

“All of our work is done in teams. You have to know how to work well with others. But you also have to know how to engage the customer—to find out what his needs are. If you can’t engage others, then you won’t learn what you need to know.”

I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. This guy, who was an engineer and head of a very technical business, said that he most valued employees who could ask good questions and engage others! I was surprised but also a bit skeptical. He didn’t fit my stereotype of a CEO— or an engineer, for that matter—with his emphasis on “soft” skills for a hard-edged, high-tech world.

Later, the conversation turned to our children and their schools. Parker happened to mention that one of his children had had a difficult start to his school year when he challenged something a teacher said. It took several months—and some candid conversations between the teacher and the parents—before the teacher finally decided that Parker s child was not a trouble-maker. I made a mental note: Corporate CEO most values asking good questions; his child gets into trouble at school for asking the teacher a question. The problem of students getting into trouble for challenging something a teacher says is not new to me, but I found this juxtaposition especially jarring.

I asked Parker what he and his wife were most concerned about when it came to the schools their children attended. “My wife and I fully support the aims of No Child Left Behind,” he said, referring to the landmark 2002 education legislation aimed at closing the achievement gap by holding schools more accountable through increased use of standardized tests. “But our children’s teachers take more than a month before the testing begins to teach and review the materials that are going to be on the test, so they are clearly teaching to the test, rather than teaching for a deeper understanding of the content.”

Only a month of teaching to the test, I thought. Little does he know. His children go to schools in a good suburban district, whereas in schools that serve more economically disadvantaged kids, teaching to the test is the only curriculum—not for a month, but for the entire year. But the more important point for me: Here was a man who headed the division of a company that was in direct competition with companies in India and China—a growing company that created good jobs for American youth—and he was very clear about the kinds of skills he needed in employees. He was also quite aware that our current education reform initiatives, while trying to address the problem of the achievement gap between middle-class and poor kids, might not result in all students knowing how to ask good questions. …

Ironically, the increased emphasis on testing has come about because of a growing fear, shared by many in this country, that if we don’t turn out better-educated and more highly qualified students—especially in math and science—then more and more of our best jobs will go to better-prepared students in developing countries. This is a large part of the rationale among business leaders and policymakers for an increased emphasis on testing at all grade levels and requiring more academic courses in math and the sciences, as well as promoting more Advanced Placement courses in our high schools. Yet, … Parker … told me that the preparation that mattered most for … jobs was less about technical skills and knowledge than about learning how to think, and [his] concern was that time spent on test preparation and memorizing more content knowledge comes at the expense of teaching students to use their minds well. …

Increasingly in America today—and in other countries, as well—there are two achievement gaps in our education systems. The first of these— well-documented, widely discussed, and the focus of education reform efforts for the past decade or so—is the gap between the quality of schooling that most middle-class kids get in America and the quality of schooling available for most poor and minority children—and the consequent disparity in results. The second one is the global achievement gap, as I’ve come to call it—the gap between what even our best suburban, urban, and rural public schools are teaching and testing versus what all students will need to succeed as learners, workers, and citizens in today’s global knowledge economy. As a country, we’ve been striving to close the first achievement gap by bringing our poorest schools up to the standards of our middle-class schools—mainly through increased testing and greater accountability for progress, as measured by the tests. However, it has become increasingly clear to me that even in these “good” schools, students are simply not learning the skills that matter most for the twenty-first century. Our system of public education—our curricula, teaching methods, and the tests we require students to take—were created in a different century for the needs of another era. They are hopelessly outdated. …

I have come to understand that there is a core set of survival skills for today’s workplace, as well as for lifelong learning and active citizenship—skills that are neither taught nor tested even in our best school systems. Young people who want to earn more than minimum wage and who go out into the world without the new survival skills I’ve uncovered in my research are crippled for life; they are similarly unprepared to be active and informed citizens or to be adults who will continue to be stimulated by new information and ideas. Parents and educators who do not attend to these skills are putting their children at an increased risk of not being able to get and keep a good job, grow as learners, or make positive contributions to their community. I believe that opinion leaders and policymakers who do not understand the profound implications of teaching and testing these new survival skills are complicit in an unwitting conspiracy to put our nation at even greater risk of losing our competitive advantage. Unfortunately, the bet that No Child Left Behind will save us is a losing one.

Hyperbole? You be the judge. Come with me as I talk to representatives from the New World of Work and discover what I call the Seven Survival Skills for the twenty-first century.

The First Survival Skill: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

In one form or another, the ability to ask good questions has been a recurrent theme in almost all of my conversations about core competencies and skills for success in today’s workplace. The habit of asking good questions was most frequently mentioned as an essential component of critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. It turns out that asking good questions, critical thinking, and problem solving go hand in hand in the minds of most employers and business consultants, and taken together they represent the First Survival Skill of the new global “knowledge economy.” Equally important, they are skills that our kids need in order to participate effectively in our democracy. …

I had a long conversation with Annmarie Neal, who is vice president for Talent Management at Cisco Systems— a global company that is the leading supplier of network equipment and network management for the Internet. … She argued that critical-thinking and problem-solving skills were the most important competencies at her company. But she offered a slightly different explanation for the significance of these skills:

“Peter Senge’s idea of the ‘Learning Organization is on steroids now because organizations today need to deal with all this flow of information. [Senge is the author of The Fifth Discipline, a book about the importance of continuous learning and systems thinking in organizations’ ability to adapt to change.] Employees need to sift through an overwhelming amount of information in order to figure out what’s important and what’s not. To do this you have to think critically.”

In schools, critical thinking has long been a buzz phrase. Educators pay lip service to its importance, but few can tell me what they mean by the phrase or how they teach and test it—in part, because, as we will see, critical-thinking skills are not tested in any of the new state tests or even college entrance tests like the SAT and ACT. So I wanted to hear Neal’s definition of critical thinking. I was interested to know if she had an operational definition of this term more clearly in mind than many teachers I’d talked to.

Her response was impressive: “Taking issues and situations and problems and going to root components; understanding how the problem evolved—looking at it from a systemic perspective and not accepting things at face value.

“It also means being curious about why things are the way they are and being able to think about why something is important.” Indeed, Neal herself went on with a list of questions: “What do I really need to understand about this; what is the history; what are other people thinking about this; how does that all come together; what frames and models can we use to understand this from a variety of different angles and then come up with something different?” …

The Second Survival Skill: Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence

My … conversation with CEO Christy Pedra at Siemens suggested to me that the concept of teamwork today is very different from what it had been twenty years ago. “Technology has allowed for virtual teams,” she explained. “The way some engineering projects in our company are set up is that you are part of a virtual team. We have teams working on major infrastructure projects that are all over the U.S. On other projects, you’re working with people all around the world on solving a software problem. They don’t work in the same room, they don’t come to the same office, but every week they’re on a variety of conference calls; they’re doing web casts; they’re doing net meetings.

“Seven or eight years ago, I was part of a pilot program for the company in creating the virtual office here in New England. We reduced our office footprint, reduced our square footage, and gave people technology so they could work from the road. One of the lessons we learned quickly was that the hardest thing to change was the behavior of the employees. They didn’t know how to operate individually and then collaborate from afar, and so we had to provide coaching and counseling on how you communicate via e-mail and conference calls.”

Pedra further explained that the creation of virtual offices and teams that communicated electronically made the development of trust an enormous challenge: “I once read that trust is the total number of interactions divided by the number of positive interactions,” she explained. “The higher the number of positive interactions, the greater the trust. Knowing that you’re not face to face with people, that you don’t see them when you’re taking off your coat in the morning, or setting up your desk, or grabbing a cup of coffee, how do you provide the opportunity to interact so that they have the ability to develop trust?”

The challenges involved in virtual and global collaboration also came up during my discussions with Annmarie Neal from Cisco. “Collaboration is an essential skill for us,” she said. “Command-and-control leadership style is becoming less and less valued in organizations. People have to understand the importance of working fluidly and across boundaries. As organizations become more global, the ability to work fluidly around the world is a competitive advantage: understanding how to leverage the globe, time zones, where the work can best be done, where there are skills that best match the task, either because of the culture or the training.” …

The Third Survival Skill: Agility and Adaptability

The portrait of the New World of Work that is emerging is a complex one. The shift from a hierarchal authority that tells you what to do to a team-based environment has been both rapid and profound. Similarly, the intensifying rate of change, the overwhelming amount of data, and the increasing complexity of problems that individuals and teams face every day in their work are dramatic new challenges for everyone in the organization. All of these changes illuminate the importance of another set of essential survival skills for work today: agility and adaptability. These skills have been consistently mentioned during all of my discussions with leaders from every kind of organization.

Clay Parker explained that anyone who comes to work at BOC Edwards today “has to think, be flexible, change, and be adaptive, and use a variety of tools to solve new problems. We change what we do all the time. I’ve been here four years, and we’ve done fundamental reorganization every year because of changes in the business. People have to learn to adapt. I can guarantee that the job I hire someone to do will change or may not exist in the future, so this is why adaptability and learning skills are more important than technical skills.” …

The Fourth Survival Skill: Initiative and Entrepreneurialism

Employees can be good problem solvers and team players, and they can be agile and adapt to new surroundings and ideas, but I learned that mastery of these survival skills is not enough in many companies— and likewise in many communities that face new challenges requiring proactive leadership. In the interviews I conducted, I heard a strong and consistent concern about the ways in which today’s workers (and citizens) use or apply these survival skills: Leaders today want to see individuals take more initiative and even be entrepreneurial in terms of the ways they seek out new opportunities, ideas, and strategies for improvement.

… It was Mark Maddox from Unilever who said that “we need self-directed people who . . . can . . . find creative solutions to some very tough, challenging problems.” And Karen Bruett explained that the members of her education group, for whom understanding technology has traditionally been their most important skill, “need to shift to understanding the problems of our customer—in this case, in education. They need to help educators figure out how to use technology effectively, and the group is going to have to figure this out for themselves.”

The Fifth Survival Skill: Effective Oral and Written Communication

During our exploration of the Second Survival Skill, Pedra described one of the first problems she encountered when her group began to work less face to face and in more of a “virtual office.” “We had to provide coaching and counseling on how you communicate via e-mail and conference calls,” she told me. In fact, her concerns about workers’ poor communication skills are widespread among the people I have spoken with, emerging in most of the interviews I conducted. Communication skills are a major factor highlighted in dozens of studies over the years that focus on students’ lack of preparation for both college and the workplace, and these skills are only going to become more important as teams are increasingly composed of individuals from diverse cultures. The ability to express one’s views clearly in a democracy and to communicate effectively across cultures is an important citizenship skill as well.

When employers were asked about the skills of high school graduates in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills study mentioned earlier, “[m]ore than half (52.7 percent) say [that] Written Communications, which includes writing memos, letters, complex reports clearly and effectively, is ‘very important’ for high school graduates’ successful job performance,” and “80.9 percent of employer respondents report high school graduate entrants as ‘deficient.’“ The study continued with an assessment of two-year and four-year college graduates’ writing skills: “46.4 percent of employer respondents report new workforce entrants with a two-year college diploma as ‘deficient,’ and over a quarter (26.2 percent) report that new workforce entrants with a four-year college diploma are ‘deficient.’ Almost two-thirds of employer respondents (64.9) say Writing in English is ‘very important’ for two-year college graduates; almost 90 percent (89.7 percent) say these skills are ‘very important’ for four-year college graduates.”7

As Annmarie Neal told me, “The biggest skill people are missing is the ability to communicate: both written and oral presentations. It’s a huge issue for us.”

… While it’s obviously important to write and speak correctly, the complaints I heard most frequently were more about fuzzy thinking and the lack of writing with a real voice. What business leaders don’t understand, however, is that most teachers aren’t trained or encouraged to teach this kind of writing. Instead, as we’ll see, they are often asked to teach 120 or more students a day a simplistic formula style of writing that will enable the students to pass standardized tests, and they have very little time to do anything more.

The Sixth Survival Skill: Accessing and Analyzing Information

Employees in the twenty-first century have to manage an astronomical amount of information flowing into their work lives on a daily basis. As Mike Summers told me, “There is so much information available that it is almost too much, and if people aren’t prepared to process the information effectively it almost freezes them in their steps.” Annmarie Neal pointed out that organizations need to be able to understand how people deal with the flow of information. She also stressed the importance of critical thinking in the context of how an employee receives and uses information. Rob Gordon said that all high school graduates need to learn how to access and analyze different kinds of information. And Susan, the woman who works in the retail industry, talked about needing “people who can conceptualize but also synthesize a lot of data.” As she mentioned: “There’s so much more data that people have to synthesize. And they can’t just produce a bunch of reports. They have to find the important details and then say ‘here’s what we should do about it.’“

In writing about the growing importance of the knowledge worker in the 1960s, Peter Drucker explained that it was the increasing availability of information and the need to know how to analyze it that, in fact, enabled and even required more and more employees to become knowledge workers. In other words, the ability to analyze information in order to discern new challenges and opportunities had become, even in Drucker’s time, a vital core competency in the workplace. Today, this is even truer. In a very short period of time, with the advent of the Internet and the increasing availability of fast connections, we have evolved from a society where only a few people had limited information to one where all of us experience information flux and glut—and can look up almost anything imaginable on our computer in a search that takes nanoseconds. …

Instant access to overwhelming amounts of information raises fundamental questions about the nature of the curriculum in our schools today. But before we can explore this issue, we have one more survival skill to consider.

The Seventh Survival Skill: Curiosity and Imagination

The words curiosity and inquisitiveness are almost always mentioned when I ask leaders to tell me what skills matter most today. Creativity and innovation are key factors not only in solving problems but also in developing new or improved products and services. And so today’s employees need to master both “left-brain” skills—such as critical thinking and problem solving, accessing and evaluating information, and so on—and “right-brain” skills such as curiosity, imagination, and creativity. It’s not enough to just be trained in the techniques of how to ask questions—as lawyers and MBAs often are, for example. Employees must also know how to use analytical skills in ways that are often more “out-of-the-box” than in the past, come up with creative solutions to problems, and be able to design products and services that stand out from the competition. In other words, they have to be new and improved knowledge workers—those who can think in disciplined ways, but also those who have a burning curiosity, a lively imagination, and can engage others empathetically. …

Annmarie Neal described curiosity as an essential element of critical thinking. She told me that curiosity is about “taking issues and situations and problems and going to root components; understanding how the problem evolved—upstream and downstream components, looking at it from a systemic perspective; not accepting things at face value but being curious about why things are the way they are.” In other words, the ability to do a “systems analysis” is important, but it is the habit of curiosity that allows an individual to begin to wonder how a system might be substantively improved or even reinvented. As I’ve heard time and time again, new employees straight out of high school and even college do not know how best to think about problems and how to approach them. We need to be curious.

Charlie Chaplin’s silent movie Modern Times is a classic parody of the “Old World” of blue-collar work. As an assembly-line worker, Chaplin’s character is always getting into trouble with the bosses and ends up getting caught in the cogs of the machine. He’s simply another replaceable part. What I’ve come to learn is that the most successful companies in the emerging economy need a new and very different kind of worker who teams with others to continuously reinvent the machine as well as the products and services it creates. And I’ve discovered that, for some of us at least, our stereotypes of both white- and blue-collar work are badly out of date. As out of date, perhaps, as our beliefs about what constitutes an adequate education. As out of date, we shall see, as the schools we created to meet the needs of a very different era.


Wagner, Tony. 2008. The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills our Children Need, and What We Can Do About It. New York: Basic Books, pp.1-41. || Amazon || WorldCat


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