Education is great, but education is not the same as job training. Education prepares the individual to learn and adapt, Training prepares the individual for work.
All around the world we have large academic institutions educating many of the employees of the future. Many will position themselves as focused on employability, and indeed many publish statistics around salaries and recruitment post graduate. But are these educational establishments really doing the best they can for our future workforce?
Is there a disconnect between university expectations and the workplace?
Over the last few years, RapidBI has worked with a well established local university in London to offer a real-world project to students. The goals from a university perspective is to offer work experience to the students and to act as outreach to businesses in the local community.
The project approach involves a mix of undergraduates working to solve a problem for the business. Through this process, I have learned some valuable lessons. I have learnt about my business. About the attitudes of people new to the workplace as well as the educational process itself. I should at this point say that throughout my career I have had organisational responsibilities with a broad range of education establishments at all levels from High School through to postgraduate centres in both curriculum development as well as recruitment into industry.
What is the context of this university/ industry project?
The projects are accredited, and an optional module to a students programme. All participants opt for the module choice. To paraphrase the university:
The scheme offers students from all levels and disciplines the chance to gain real-life, practical, hands-on experience, along with insights into the inner working environments of SME [Small and Medium-sized Enterprises] organisations. Students worked together in consultancy teams and engaged in researching and finding solutions to specific challenges.
The aim of the project was to increase the confidence and aspirations of students, by creating parity between how students view SMEs and corporate employers.
The students are put into mixed discipline groups and they are assigned to a company. The company meets and provides a brief. The projects have 2 or 3 stages or phases. The project duration is approximately 14 working weeks. The culmination is a presentation to the employer of their work or solution. The student teams have access to the companies whenever they like. Most projects are off-site research or design type projects.
Now here is the disconnect.
Much like any course work within their academic study, it seems that many participants focus on the submission points. Unless proactively prompted, they work in isolation and at the end of each phase show their work. As a client of a consulting process, it feels a little like “surprise”!
In the working world, we expect people to communicate with all stakeholders on a regular basis. To gain continuous feedback. To ask for help rather than struggle in silence. Much like any good customer service, we like to be kept informed of progress.
It is almost like any collaboration skills are kept exclusively within the team or group at the exclusion of other stakeholders. In a university setting, free thought and self-dependence are taught and indeed expected. But in the world of work, this needs to be tempered with communication and collaboration. Managers and stakeholders of all kinds hate surprises (unless it is under budget and ahead of schedule or creates more income than expected!). Indeed whilst a progress leap is welcomed, at the same time any solution may have drifted from the expected arena, and this needs to be caught sooner than later, else we waste time and effort. Or of course new information could be in the hands of the stakeholders, but the project participants might not know of this. The stakeholder may not realise its relevance to the original expected journey route.
It is not about micromanagement
In the example above, I talk about communication and involvement. As managers and stakeholders we like (and indeed feel the NEED) to be “kept in the loop”. I do wonder that if graduates bring this approach to the workplace how their manager will feel?
How will they (line managers) react to a “lack of communication”? Will they feel “out of control”? Will they question the capability of the individual if they cannot see (or feel) progress?
Some reading this piece may confuse micromanagement with collaboration and communication. They are very different things. Collaboration and communication is often the difference that makes the difference in a work environment. However, not all of us know everything. Sometimes stakeholder may have a perception or additional knowledge that was not initially relevant. However, along with a journey, things may come to light in which additional information becomes critical. Without that knowledge, the project team may not deliver the best solution. After all, we don’t know, what we don’t know (box 4 problems). To many in the world of work, open communication and collaboration across stakeholders is the only sustainable business advantage post the 2008 financial crisis.
Graduates not being “work ready”, is it down to language and understanding?
In the example I cite above, one could argue there is a disconnect in the understanding of what collaboration is, and how to collaborate effectively.
For my projects, I set up a collaborative workspace. A place where I as the project client put resources, documents etc. A place where discussion etc can take place. I do this as I am aware that it is not something that students typically do within an educational context, so for me, it is introducing them to a way of working I have used for many years with many clients.
Curiously, I have recently discovered that most universities have collaboration spaces, but tutors and students alike do not use them. Yet the student population often collaborate in non-academic places (Wattsapp, snapshot, Instagram etc). There is a lot of academic research as to why these tools are not used in academia. A lack of clear role-modelling is one of the findings. I have my suspicions that it is more to do with the tutors’ attitudes to online collaboration than the students, but that is a debate for another day!
In other examples, Gallup reports that often an employer considers “critical thinking” to be the generation or creation of new ideas. However, from a psychological or academic perspective, it means to be critical about the thoughts and ideas of others.
Universities have a role to use the language of the world of work. They will argue that they need to build a pipeline for higher education and to retain good talent in the academic environment. I would argue that just as the world of work is changing, so will the academic world. It needs to be more flexible and aligned with where the majority of its students will spend their working life.
The future of work
The future of work and the nature of work is changing. Changing at a pace that is unprecedented. In the same way that over the last 20 years has seen massive changes to the work we do, the next 20 will show an even faster rate of change. There is much conjecture in the world of management and human resources about the future of work and the future of meaningful work. One thing that is certain and that is as more people adopt a portfolio approach to work, so the importance of communication and collaboration increases exponentially.
The skills of collaboration and other more flexible team-based work will increase. So will the nature of remote or distance working. More people will run their own small businesses, and this by its very definition will require a lot of collaborative working. Without flexible partnerships and collaborative approached, RapidBi would be a very different company than it is today.
There is good news
Whilst some of the tools and methods used to educate young people may not be the best in the world of work as we know it, there is hope.
Without exception, all of the people I have had in the teams have a positive, can-do attitude. they bring energy, and when prompted creativity. Those of us that have spent enough time in the field of people development or “learning and development” know that it is much easier to teach skills like collaboration than it is to change a person’s values or attitude.
Give me an energetic person willing to learn any day over a person with the skills, but lacks a willingness to try new ways.
Employer expectations of fresh graduates
Unfortunately, many employers expect graduates to be “out of the box” ready to fulfil a professional role. These employers deserve what they get. In the transition from any place to another, there is a period of induction or onboarding needed. In the case of people from full-time education, any reasonable employer will understand that it is a transition, and whilst the individual will have great transferable skills, they will not be “job ready”. Indeed if they are job ready straight from full-time education, it suggests they are employing the wrong people!
Professional employers realise that what they are getting is energetic, passionate, and fresh people, ready to be taught how to do the role. they should have the core skills, but of course, core skills is not the same as an experienced employee.
Employers need to be more open to providing the experience fresh graduates need in their transition to the world of work.
Education establishments have a role and a responsibility in helping graduates make the transfer from the world of education to the world of work. This may mean understanding the language differences as well as the productivity expectations.
Business and employers need to understand that they have a responsibility to train and develop the people they need to meet their stated business or organisational goals.
The world of work is not like a supermarket where you get to select a “ready meal” for the job, but more to select the ingredients from the fresh produce aisle and train the individual how to cook. We only need to look at the difference in shelf-life of produce to understand that the metaphor is just as valid for people and their skills!
Fresh vs Processed: The reality of junk food – or the reality of “junk workers” – do you want your people to be fit for one purpose only 0- or adaptable for what every your market place demands of you?