A VUCA World Requires More Than Big Data

by | Sep 29, 2015 | Talent | 0 comments

In the TED@IBM talk last year, Susan Etlinger spoke on the topic “What do we do with all this big data?” The gist of her talk was that facts in themselves are meaningless without context. She also went on to say that lack of ability to question and to bring an array of general knowledge to help understand the facts leads to one-sided and often poor decisions. The bottom line is that critical thinking skills are vital to using big data effectively.

This has also been a theme of mine for some time. While I am a data junkie, I understand that having knowledge of history, politics, ethics, language, philosophy and culture are necessary ingredients to fully understand and appreciate the data and facts we see. Whether we confront facts related to our health or to the environment or whatever, having the ability to critically think through these facts and weigh them against other evidence is core to making the best decisions.

I am concerned with the relentless focus on science, engineering, math, and technology education that is currently in vogue. As we enter a vague, uncertain, complex and ambiguous future we will need all the wisdom and knowledge of the past to help guide us when we are called on to make decisions. By removing or diminishing subjects such as art, music, philosophy or history from schools to make room for more science or technology-related learning is a mistake.

We are met with questions every day that require thoughtful discourse to make decisions that are best for all of us. For example, should we allow Uber to employ freelance drivers who lack benefits and often lack skill? How do we balance the desire of these drivers for independence with the public good? Do we allow NSA to collect our personal data and make decisions about us based on what we say, research, or buy without really knowing who we are or why we are doing whatever it is we are doing?

These are not technology or data or fact issues. These require us as a society to develop opinions and forge philosophies about our way of life through educated conversations and debates to arrive at compromise solutions. And this can only happen when we have citizens who are broadly educated and who have had some training in history, politics, ethics and other liberal arts topics.

The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

The future is uncertain and not one of us can know what the skills we will need are going to be. What we do know is that people who have a broad array of skills and knowledge – the ability to think critically and apply scientific, historical, ethical and social perspectives to their decisions. – are more likely to adapt to whatever needs arise and learn the skills they need quickly. This is the realm of a well-designed liberal arts education.

Google and many other firms are focusing more on hiring young people who have motivation, learning ability, and a cooperative mindset. Not narrowly educated technologists or engineers.

The new economy growing around us needs and uses a very different type of worker. The new generation of worker needs a broader base of skills and knowledge than any previous generation. While science and math are important they are just pieces of a greater whole that include the arts, history, literature, language, ethics, and culture.

The New Economy- From Hardware to Software to Mindware

What has been happening is a transformation of the workplace. We are shifting from a world where the glory was in hardware – making, building, and inventing machines and tools – to one of design and software.

Innovation and design centers, neither of which need or use large numbers of engineers, scientists, or technologists, are thriving.

Apple and other firms depend on a rather eclectic group of talent – people who make up a large portion of what Richard Florida has called the Creative Class. These are writers, designers, artists, anthropologists, software programmers, and the like. Silicon Valley is full of these folks.

The emerging economy will require workers who can do many things and who have a broad and general background. They will need to learn quickly and adapt to new circumstances gracefully. The future is in thinking and reasoning – in mindware.

The theme of the upcoming TED@IBM talks is Necessity and Invention where speakers will discuss that human need to make new things – to invent. What drives it and how do we determine what is essential and needed? What sparks the creative juices and what does one need to be successful not just in inventing something but in inventing something people need and want? Join us at the event on October 15th in San Francisco.

DISCLOSURE:   Like many of you, I love the inspiration and big thinking that comes out of TED.  I will be attending TED@IBM on October 15, 2015 as their guest. This post, while not required of me in exchange for my invitation, was written as a part of the IBM New Way to Engage futurist program of which I am a part and is being promoted by IBM through that program. While they are paying to promote it in social media, the words above are completely my own, except as otherwise quoted, and do not reflect the position of IBM.

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