Learning to doThis question is closely associated with the issue of occupational training: how do we adapt education so that it can equip people to do the types of work needed in the future? Here we should draw a distinction between industrial economies, where most people are wage-earners, and other economies where self-employment or casual work are still the norm.
In societies where most people are in paid employment, which have developed throughout the Twentieth century based on the industrial model, automation is making this model increasingly "intangible". It emphasizes the knowledge component of tasks, even in industry, as well as the importance of services in the economy. The future of these economies hinges on their ability to turn advances in knowledge into innovations that will generate new businesses and new jobs. "Learning to do" can no longer mean what it did when people were trained to perform a very specific physical task in a manufacturing process. Skill training therefore has to evolve and become more than just a means of imparting the knowledge needed to do a more or less routine job.
From certified skills to personal competence
The major part played by knowledge and information in manufacturing industry renders obsolete the notion of specialist skills on the part of the workforce. The key concept now is one of "personal competence". Technological progress inevitably changes the job skills required by the new production processes. Purely physical tasks are being replaced by tasks with a greater intellectual or cerebral content such as the operation, maintenance and monitoring of machines and design and organizational tasks, as the machines themselves become more intelligent.
There are several reasons for this increase in skill requirements at all levels. Instead of being organized to perform specified tasks in juxtaposition in accordance with Taylor's principles of scientific labour organization, manufacturing workers are often divided into work teams or project groups on the Japanese model. This approach represents a departure from the idea of dividing labour into similar physical tasks which are essentially learned by repetition. Furthermore, the idea of personalized tasks is taking over from that of employee interchangeability. There is a growing trend among employers to evaluate potential employees in terms of their personal competence rather than certified skills which they see as merely demonstrating the ability to perform specific physical tasks. This personal competence is assessed by looking at a mix of skills and talents, combining certified skills acquired through technical and vocational training, social behaviour, personal initiative and a willingness to take risks.
If we add a demand for personal commitment on the part of employees in their role as change agents, it is clear that this kind of personal competence involves highly subjective innate or acquired qualities, often referred to as "people skills" or "interpersonal skills" by employers, combined with knowledge and other job skills. Of these qualities, communication, team and problem-solving skills are assuming greater importance. The growth of the service industries has resulted in an increase in this trend.
The shift away from physical work - the service industries
In advanced economies there is a shift away from physical work. The implications of this trend for education are even clearer if we look at the development of the service industries in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Most of the active population (60 - 80 per cent) of the industrialized countries is employed in the service sector. The main defining characteristic of this extremely broad category is that it covers activities which are neither industrial nor agricultural and which, despite their diversity, do not involve any tangible product.
Many services are defined primarily in terms of the interpersonal relationship involved. Examples of this are found both in the rapidly expanding private service sector which is benefiting from the growing complexity of economies (every kind of expertise imaginable, security services or high-tech consultancy services, financial, accounting and management services) and in the more traditional public sector (social services, health and education services, etc.). In both these cases, information and communication play a vital role. The key aspect here is the personalized acquisition and processing of specific data for a clearly defined project. In this type of service, both the provider and the user influence the quality of the relationship between them. Clearly, people can no longer be trained for this sort of work in the same way as they learned how to plough the land or make a sheet of steel. These new jobs are about interpersonal relationships; workers' relationships with the materials and processes they are using are secondary. The growing service sector needs people with good social and communication skills - skills that are not necessarily taught at school or university.
Lastly, in the ultra high-tech organizations of the future, where relational inadequacies might cause serious dysfunctions, new types of skills will be required, with an interpersonal rather than intellectual basis. This may provide an opportunity for people with few or no formal educational qualifications. Intuition, common sense, judgement and leadership skills are not confined to highly qualified people. How and where are these more or less innate skills to be taught? The problem is akin to that raised by the idea of vocational training in developing countries. Educational content simply cannot be inferred from a statement of the skills or abilities required for specific tasks.
Work in the informal economy
The nature of work is very different in the economies of developing countries where most people are not wage-earners. In many sub-Saharan African countries and some Latin American and Asian countries, only a small proportion of the population is in paid employment. The vast majority works in the traditional subsistence economy, where specific job qualifications are not required and where know-how is the fruit of tacit knowledge. For this reason, education cannot simply be modelled on the types of education that seem to fit the bill in post-industrial societies. Besides, the function of learning is not confined to work; it should meet the wider aim of achieving formal or informal participation in development. This often involves social skills as much as occupational skills.
In other developing countries, a thriving unofficial modern economy based on trade and finance may exist alongside a small official economic sector and agriculture. This parallel economy indicates the existence of business communities capable of meeting local requirements.
In both these cases, there is no point in providing the population with high-cost training (since the teachers and the educational resources have to come from abroad) either in conventional industrial skills or in advanced technology. On the contrary, education should be brought into endogenous development by strengthening local potential and the spirit of empowerment.
We then have to address a question that applies to both developed and developing countries: how do people learn to act appropriately in an uncertain situation, how do they become involved in shaping the future?
How can people be prepared to innovate?
This question is being asked in developing and developed countries. It basically comes down to knowing how to develop personal initiative. Paradoxically, the richest countries are sometimes restrained in this respect by the excessively coded and formal way they are organized, particularly as regards their educational systems, and by a certain fear of risk-taking which may be engendered by the rationalization of their economic model. Undoubtedly, sport, club membership and artistic and cultural activities are more successful than the traditional school systems at providing this kind of training. The discovery of other societies through study and travel may encourage such behaviour. From this point of view in particular, a great deal may be learned by observing the economies of developing countries.
In all countries, lastly, the growing importance of small groups, networking and partnerships highlights the likelihood that excellent interpersonal skills will be an essential job requirement from now on. What is more, the new working patterns, whether in industry or in the service sector, will call for the intensive application of information, knowledge and creativity. All things considered, the new forms of personal competence are based on a body of theoretical and practical knowledge combined with personal dynamism and good problem-solving, decision-making, innovative and team skills.
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