Building Adaptive Capacity

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“When people look to authorities for easy answers to adaptive challenges, they end up with dysfunction.  They expect the person in charge to know what to do, and under the weight of that responsibility, those in authority frequently end up faking it or disappointing people, or they get spit out of the system in the belief that a new “leader” will solve the problem.”  

“In fact, there’s a proportionate relationship between risk and adaptive change: The deeper the change and the greater the amount of new learning required, the more resistance there will be and, thus, the greater the danger to those who lead.  For this reason, people often try to avoid the dangers, either consciously or subconsciously, by treating an adaptive challenge as if it were a technical one.  This is why we see so much more routine management than leadership in our society.”  -Heifetz and Linsky Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading

Which is one of the greatest challenges that stands before our educational organizations and leaders at this very moment in time…

The understanding that we have made a radical shift from technical problems to the amount of adaptive challenges and dilemmas that we now and will face.

For this reason, it will be in our ability to create greater organizational and individual capacity that we will be better equipped to face and come to terms with these rising adaptive challenges and dilemmas that are coming at us.

However, before moving any farther forward, let’s take a moment for Heifetz and Linsky to create a deeper understanding around what separates, or serves as the main difference between what is seen as a technical problem from which we view an adaptive challenge and/or dilemma.

“What makes a problem technical is not that it is trivial; but simply that its solution already lies within the organization’s repertoire.  In contrast, adaptive pressures force the organization to change, lest it decline.” 

To add, what separates a “technical problem” from an “adaptive challenge” is that there are no absolute answers to adaptive challenges and/or dilemmas.  Whereas, while a technical issue may be difficult, we answers to those problems.  Answers exist, be that from internally or externally of our organization.

Whereas, with adaptive challenges, there are often no set answers to solving the dilemma.  Very often, they require deeper questions and the willingness of individuals and the organization to grapple their way forward.  Or as Heifetz and Linsky add in Leadership on the Line, “We call these adaptive challenges because they require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community.  Without learning new ways-changing attitudes, values, and behaviors-people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in the new environment.  The sustainability of change depends on having the people with the problem internalize the change itself.”

Facing our adaptive challenges and dilemmas require our ability to constantly create and build up our adaptive capacity.  Which means that new and ongoing learning, as well as engaging greater agility and adaptability, has to be built up across and at all levels of the organization.  Which means…

“Just tell me what to do” can no longer be an unwritten motto that sweeps across the entirety of our organizations.  

Instead, learning has to become the new constant, with a focus on deeper questions, not easy answers.

We have to learn to become more agile and adaptable, both as individuals and organizations.  And we have to be able to stand longer under the weight of big questions.  In other words, we have to learn how to grapple…

We have to learn to be able to grapple in the face of uncertainty, in the face of accelerated change, in the face of unknowns, in the face of the adaptive challenges and dilemmas we now face, as well as those in the future.

Unfortunately, as Heifetz and Linsky share in Leadership on the Line“In the face of adaptive pressures, people don’t want questions; they want answers.  They don’t want to be told that they will have to sustain losses; rather, they want to know how you’re going to protect the from the pains of change.”

Which means that leading adaptive work, leading people through adaptive challenges and dilemmas, and creating adaptive capacity, will be both the greatest and most difficult work that any leader and organization will ever embark upon.

Creating adaptive capacity to face the challenges and dilemmas of today’s modern world is difficult work, to say the least.  It means going against the norm of most leadership.

We hire leaders to provide a sense of stability, a sense of safety.  Whereas, the work of building up the adaptive capacity of an organization requires provoking that safety, of pulling people out of the comfortable, of unentrenching them from the status quo ways of doing and being that they come to know; which can mean difficult days ahead, and very often spell disaster for any leader.

But that is what is required, if adaptive capacity is to become both the individual and organizational objective.

This is deep work.  It forces individuals and organizations to move past a veneer way of working.  It requires depth of trust, depth of relationships, and a depth of understanding around their values and vision.  It takes a willingness to be vulnerable.  It takes a willingness to face loss.  It takes a willingness to become and stay a learner.  And it takes a willingness and want to get better…each and every day.

It is in that space, in that willingness to grapple both as individuals and organizations, that adaptive capacity is created and sustained.

I will leave you with these words from Heifetz and Linsky from Leadership on the Line and a question…

“Generally, people will not authorize someone to make them face what they do not want to face.  Instead, people hire someone to provide protection and ensure stability, someone with solutions that require a minimum of disruption.  But adaptive work creates risk, conflict, and instability because addressing the issues underlying adaptive problems may involve upending deep and entrenched norms.  Thus, leadership requires disturbing people-but at a rate they can absorb.”

What are you willing to disturb?

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Preparing Our Students For The Future

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In a world fueled by unknowns, how do we prepare our students, our people and our organizations for the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) of a world that is changing and shifting in an accelerated and often exponential ways?

What kind of knowledge and learning will be necessary and needed to traverse the future?

What types of requisite skills and abilities will be deemed valuable for the knowledge economy, amidst exponential times?

What competencies, capacities and capabilities will prove to be relevant in a world driven by accelerated obsolescence?

And the answer is…

We don’t know.

We are neither soothsayers, oracles, psychics or fortune tellers.  We cannot predict the future, and for that matter, those who have tried have shown themselves to have a pretty poor track record for being correct.

However, that does not mean that we should not be much more attentive to and aware of the signals in the chaos.

Signals of opportunity, signals of change, signals of coming shifts.  

We need to not only be much more aware of our own “point of view” of the future, we should also be searching to determine the signals amidst the noise not to predict, but to better forecast the future.  Seeing the importance of those signals, especially in a world that is unfolding in much less linear and predictable ways, better allows us to forecast and prepare for what may come.

A world where gradually quickly turns into suddenly.

However, in the midst of today’s fake news and exponential changes, it is becoming more and more difficult to determine who and what to believe?  It is becoming much harder to see the signals for the noise.

For, are we facing an uncertain future where machines have taken the majority of our jobs?  Or are we just in the midst of another industrial (digital) revolution which will just require some time for adjustment?

On the one side, technologists profess staggering upheaval, even a possible dystopian future with the possibility of millions of jobs being lost to automation and artificial intelligence.  Whereas, economists ride the other side of the wave, saying that this time is not like any other major change or shift of the past where new jobs will be created over time and push us through this disruption positively.  While others profess less of a race against the machines and a race with the machines, as the automation and artificial intelligence will eventually take over work that is considered deadly, dirty, dangerous, and or rote and boring, while augmenting our capacity to do our work more efficiently and effectively.

But whatever side you fall towards, we still must say that it is difficult to believe that everything is going to be as it was, especially when several countries and a plethora of leaders across the world are expounding the need for a basic universal income (BUI) just to counter the current decoupling of productivity from employment as a strategy to avoid future economical collapse.

So while we can’t predict how this will play out in the future, the more aware we are, the more agile and adaptive we can become in forecasting and facing whatever changes which may spring from this current disruption.

The best thing we can do for our students, our people, and our organizations is to increase our awareness, search out those signals in the chaos, and look to better prepare ourselves for a much different future.

We can begin by looking at how the very idea of work is changing, and what impact will those changes have on education?  

Let’s begin with creating a greater awareness of the types of jobs that currently exist both now and in the very near future.  Consider some of these… 3D Platform Technical Evangelist, Data Scientist, Neuro-Implant Technicians, 3D Software Engineer-Scene Layers, Virtual Reality Experience Designer, Urban Farmers, just to name a few.  The greater awareness we have of the types of jobs that exist, the better able we are to prepare our students for the opportunities that lie beyond graduation and our academic walls as they look to pursue their passions and success for the future.

And it’s not just job titles that are changing, but the skills and abilities required by some knowledge economy organizations, which includes but not limited to: knowledge of HTML, CSS, JavaScript, C++, Python, 3D tools such as Maya, Revit, AutoCAD, experience with SCRUM, as well as knowledge of Agile development methodologies, are just a few of the skills being requested in entry level job posting by those knowledge economy organizations.

While the Institute For the Future shares a variety of other skills for the future that they see as being important, which would include: sense making, social intelligence, novel and adaptive thinking, cross-cultural competencies, computational thinking, new media literacy, transdisciplinarity, design mindset, cognitive load management, and virtual collaboration.

And it doesn’t stop there, alongside those skills, consider these capacities and competencies requested on entry level positions from such organizations as ESRI, CA Technologies or READYTALK: “ability to work in a fast-paced team environment that sparks ingenuity and encourages innovative ideas,” “work within agile processes for short cycle, fast-paced delivery,” “take on complex goals that push the boundary of the possible,” “solve and articulate complex problems through application design, development, and exemplary user experiences,” “support continuous learning and continuous team improvement,” “coach other leaders and managers on the role of a servant leadership within the Agile organization,” “strong interpersonal, written, and oral communication skills,” as well as the “ability to effectively prioritize and execute tasks in a high-pressure environment.”

So as we talk of lesson design, room design, even system design in education, the previous statements of workforce requirements inform us (signals in the chaos), that we are going to have to begin to have a much deeper discussion around environment design.  Today’s work environments are requiring much different skills-sets, capacities and competencies than what we tend to engage and create in our classrooms and schools.

So we must begin to ask ourselves, do our classrooms and schools prepare students for that type of environment?

While awareness doesn’t change everything we do, just as it doesn’t allow us to predict the future…it does allow us to not only forecast what is to come in a much more adept manner, it allows us to better determine the skills, capacities and competencies, as well as environments necessary and needed to better prepare our students, our people and our organizations for this digital disruption and the future.

In the end, it begins by understanding what does change, what doesn’t change, what remains, and what transforms.  This is not an either/or proposition, it is a matter of embracing AND.

So in closing, consider these words from study by The Economist Intelligence Unit (supported by Google) on Preparing Students for the Future…

“It is no longer sufficient-if it ever was-that teachers are well versed in their subject.  They must recognize that the skills a student acquires through learning are as important, if not more so, than the content, and be able to incorporate opportunities for the development of problem solving, collaborative, creative and communication skills into their teaching.  These skills cannot be taught in isolation but must be present across the curriculum, embedded in the fabric of how teachers teach.”

The Disruption Is Near

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“Every single job function we can identify is being fundamentally transformed. Even “old” industries such as construction are in the throes of disruption.” –David Rose via Exponential Organizations

In the midst of the chaos and disruption brought on by this new velocity and turbulence of change, the organizations that often fail to remain relevant going forward, are often those that choose to batten down the hatches and look to ride out the rough patches.  They look to insulate and protect themselves and the organization from these disruptive forces that are knocking at the gates.

Whereas the organizations that tend to remain relevant and even flourish, are those that are able to find the opportunity in the midst this same chaos and disruption.  They see possibilities where others see obstacles.  They approach these VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) times with a renewed sense of creativity and inventiveness.

Unfortunately, what many organizations have failed to realize in the midst of the upheaval brought on by this heightened pace of change, especially in today’s VUCA world, is that every organization, in every sector, be that education, government, or business, is ripe for creative disruption.  The question very often is not whether you will be disrupted, but how?  And in the face of this challenge, what we need to fully realize…is that we have a choice on that how.

So, if history has taught us anything, it has taught us that no one and no organization is immune or safe.

Or as Peter Drucker has shared, this is the Age of Discontinuity.

When we continue to pace everything we do in linear, incremental, and sequential ways of thinking and create our processes and build our structures to operate in this manner, while the world around us shifts to a much more non-linear, exponential manner of thinking and doing…something has to give.

Somewhere along the way the incoherence and misalignments become so incongruent that recovery is often no longer possible, irrelevance has already set in or has completely taken over and the only question left to answer is how long the organization can or will hang on.

Or as the Ismail, Malone and van Geest share in Exponential Organizations,

“One of the key issues in an exponential world…whatever understanding you have today is going to rapidly become obsolete, and so you have to continue to refresh your education about the technologies and about the organizational capabilities.  That’s going to be very challenging.  Rapid or disruptive change is something that large, matrixed organizations find extremely difficult.  Indeed, those who have attempted it have found that the organization’s “immune system” is liable to respond to the perceived threat with an attack.”

The problem is that the biggest threat to most organizations, is not the external forces at the gate, but our own inability to disrupt ourselves internally.  To build the internal ability and capacity to learn new, learn faster, become more agile and adaptive, to know when to continue the journey and when a pivot and shift is in order…or in other words, to be able to disrupt ourselves before the disruption is done to us.

Remember, the status quo will fight and push back every step of the way.

The one thing that we cannot do anymore is to allow ourselves to be caught unaware or choose to further insulate ourselves from these tremendous and overwhelming shifts that are now changing the very face of our societal systems, especially in light of how Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns and the digital transformation has shown us that, if anything, this new pace of change is doing more to accelerate and speed up than to slow down anytime in the near future.

So as you consider your organizational response, because a response is and will be necessary if you are to avoid irrelevance, I will leave you with these words from Ismail, Malone, and van Geest from their work Exponential Organizations

“History and common sense make clear that you cannot radically transform every part of an organization—and accelerate the underlying clock of that enterprise to hyper-speed—without fundamentally changing the nature of that organization.”

The New Liquidity Of Learning

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“In the industrial age, companies did their utmost to save themselves time by increasing their efficiency and productivity.  That is not enough today.  Now organizations need to save their customers and citizens time.  They need to do their utmost to interact in real time.  Real time is human time.”

“So in order to run in real time, our technological infrastructure needed to liquefy.  Nouns needed to be verbs.  Fixed solid things became services.  Data couldn’t remain still.  Everything had to flow into the stream of now.”  -via Kevin Kelly The Inevitable: Understanding The 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

As we consider the depths of the shifts and disruptions that the current and coming digital transformation is levying down upon and across the entirety of our societal landscape, from every industry to institution…we must also be very aware of the cognitive shifts and disruptions that are occurring simultaneously in reaction to this transformation.

From learning to literacy, we see our digital technologies emerging a variety of new literacies across the learning landscape, which according to Wikipedia would include “21st century literacies, internet literacies, digital literacies, new media literacies, multiliteracies, information literacy, and computer literacy,” to name a few.  And not just literacy, but the very act of learning itself, from how we access it, to how we interpret, utilize, engage, and even repurpose it.

In his work The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly discusses how digital technology has disrupted and changed the music industry, from the actual product down to the very notes themselves, which he conceptualizes around this idea of “liquidity.”  The interesting thing is when you put this same lens of “liquidity” on learning, instead of music, we can not only begin to envision the impact of these new literacies, but how learning is, could and will change and evolve forward in the future.

Let’s sample a bit of how this concept of “liquidity” works with the idea of learning by repurposing some of Kevin Kelly’s quotes (in bold) around this idea of the “liquidity” of music and how it could be used to stretch our idea of learning…

“Once something, like music, is digitized, it becomes a liquid that can be flexed and linked.” –via The Inevitable

Once something, like learning, is digitized, it becomes a liquid that can be flexed and linked.

“The superconductivity of digitalization had unshackled music from its narrow confines on a vinyl disk and thin oxide tape.”  -via The Inevitable

The superconductivity of digitalization has unshackled learning from its narrow confines of the book and written page.

“Now you could unbundle a song from its four-minute package, filter it, bend it, archive it, rearrange it, remix it, mess with it.”  -via The Inevitable

Now you can unbundle the written work from a text, filter it, bend it, archive it, rearrange it, remix it, and mess with it.

“What counts are not the number of copies but the number of ways a copy can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, and enlivened by other media.”  -via The Inevitable

What counts are not the number of texts, books, and blogs, but the number of ways they can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, and enlivened by other media.

These are just a few of the examples in the ways we can begin to consider how not just literacy, but learning itself can be “liquified” for the future.  Especially in a time of shifting from consumption to creation.  As Kevin Kelly shares in The Inevitable, “Liquidity brings a new ease to creation.”

As these exponential shifts and disruptions continue to spread across the societal ecosystem, we can no longer believe that it will have no effect on the future of learning.

In the words of Kevin Kelly, we will need to begin to…

“Think of the world flowing.”

Leading In The Future: Cognitive Load Management

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“Not only did we fail to imagine what the web would become, we still don’t see it today.  We are oblivious to the miracle it has blossomed into.  Twenty years after its birth the immense scope of the web is hard to fathom.  The total number of web pages including those that are dynamically created upon request, exceeds 60 trillion.  That’s almost 10,000 pages per person alive.  And this entire cornucopia has been created in less than 8,000 days.”  -Kevin Kelly The Inevitable

And it is not just how fast data is being created, it is how much…

According to Northeastern University, we are producing 2.5 Exabytes of data every day, which is equivalent to: 530,000,000 millions songs, 150,000,000 iPhones, 5 million laptops, 250,000 Libraries of Congress, and 90 years of HD video.

To add to that…

Technology Futurist Michel Zappa adds, “Every minute we are bombarded (or at least have access to) 3 days’ worth of information that we didn’t have a minute earlier, which means almost 12 years worth of new content is accessible to us every day”

And the amount of data being produced is growing fast, we are no longer just consumers of information, but creators of that data.

Which provides incredible opportunity and benefits for our modern day learning organizations, as well as overwhelming ramifications and disconnects for the individuals in those same organizations, that we must also acknowledge.

Which means that new ideas such as ‘cognitive load management’ will not only be seen as an important work skill of the future, but a necessary capacity and skill-set required of today’s organizational leaders.  Especially when you consider the definition that the Institute for the Future provides for ‘cognitive load management’ as being the “ability to discriminate and filter information for importance, and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques.”

If we are to create greater levels of organizational learning, creativity and innovation, in a time of overwhelming and oversaturated data flows, then ‘cognitive load management’ must be a deep and intentional leadership consideration if we are to create the space and focus for our organizational learning to be focused and effective.

Too often, we have overloaded our individual and organizational circuits beyond capacity, leaving little to no room or energy for new learning to exist and take root.

In any change or shift process, especially when new learning is involved,  balancing the ‘cognitive load’ provides people the space and energy to invest in evolving their mental models and expanding their current cognitive limits.  Unfortunately, however, when our systems are neither efficient nor effective, when ‘cognitive load management’ is not taken into account, our individual and organizational cognitive capacity is often tied up in unproductive ways that neither support individuals nor the organization.

Awareness and skill-sets such as ‘cognitive load management’ will be just one of the new capacities and capabilities of today’s modern leaders.  Especially as we encounter this weighted shift in our modern organizations of moving further away from the technical problems of the past to more and more of the adaptive challenges of an unknown future.

Ideas such as ‘cognitive load management’ will serve as one of the many new adaptive challenges that will face today’s organizational leaders as the rise in information and connectivity expands exponentially across our organizational and societal ecosystems.  Especially if we are to ensure that our cognitive and collaborative efforts are not wasted on the misalignments in the system and unnecessary information flows that often inundate our organizations into the ineffectiveness that comes with constant capacity overload.

“A world rich in information streams in multiple formats and from multiple devices brings the issue of cognitive overload to the fore.  Organizations and workers will only be able to turn the massive influx of data into an advantage if they can learn to effectively filter and focus on what is important.”  -via The Institute For The Future

 

The Future Will Be Anything But Rote

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“After spending time working with leading technologists and watching one bastion of human uniqueness after another fall before the inexorable onslaught of innovation, it’s becoming harder and harder to have confidence that any given task will be indefinitely resistant to automation. That means people will need to be more adaptable and flexible in their career aspirations, ready to move on from areas that become subject to automation, and seize new opportunities where machines complement and augment human capabilities.”  -via The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies

Lets be very clear: the future we are preparing our students for is going to be anything but rote.

This idea of a “skills gap” that we keep hearing about is nothing new, it has been going on for generations as education, educators and employers can’t seem to come to any real type of common ground on expectations.

The problem is that this is going to need to change, and change quickly.  Especially as the digital transformation, as well as exponential gains in automation and artificial intelligence begin to make a much more noticeable mark upon our society.  Or what McAfee refers to as the “great decoupling of the U.S. economy” as we see this divide open up between “output and productivity” and “jobs and wages.”  For which McAfee adds, “Computers are now doing many things that used to be the domain of people only.  The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications.  Perhaps the most important of theses that while digital progress grows the overall economic pie, it can do so while leaving some people, or even a lot of them, worse off.”

And what makes it even more difficult, is that more and more is being called upon and asked of education to meet this “skills gap” that employers continue to hail, while society undergoes exponential shifts from the disruption erupting from and out of this digital transformation.  Unfortunately, as much as there is this “decoupling of the U.S. economy,” there is also an another, just as disturbing and concerning, decoupling created from this “skills gap” chasm that exists and has existed for some time between education and business, educator and employer.

Or as Peter Cappelli shares in the Washington Post article, What employers really want? Workers they don’t have to train, “We should rethink this fast.  Schools are not good at providing what employers want, which is work-based skills and experience.  Instead, employers need to be much more involved, not just in telling schools what they want but in providing opportunities for new grads to get work experience and learn the relevant expertise.  We need a different approach: one where employers are not just consumers of skills, but are part of the system for producing them.”

Today’s employers are asking more and more of those entering the workforce, and if current conditions are a tell-tale sign of the future, will continue to ask more and more.  We not only need to be aware of this economic decoupling, but the continued decoupling of this long-going “skills gap” that has existed between education and employers if we are to better prepare our students for the future of work.

It not only benefits our children, educators and employers to prepare our students to be more agile and adaptive to the disruptive effects that digitization, outsourcing, automation, and artificial intelligence is having on the current and future world of work…it benefits our economy and the future success of the next generation.

Or as McAfee and Bryniolfsson share in The Second Machine Age, “This reflects the career advice that Google chief economist Hal Varian frequently gives: seek to be an indispensable complement to something that is getting cheap and plentiful.”

And it will take the work of bringing education and business together if we are to truly determine what those “indispensable” skills are that lead to success in a disruptive and exponentially shifting world and future…

Future Shifts

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“We are getting kids ready for jobs that do not exist” has been a mantra of frustration that has been bandied about the educational ecosystem for far more than the last several years.   A mantra that I believe to not only be wrong focused, but an inhibitor of change for (1) it’s predictive element relieves the system of real responsibility, necessity and urgency for any type of deep, exponential shift(s), and (2) the unknowing element of the statement can continue to allow us to insulate the system from better awareness of changes that are currently and constantly occurring across society that necessitate an educational mindshift.

When the future becomes a guessing game, when we focus on the unpredictability that we currently face, we have a tendency to recoil back to the known, back to the familiar, both as individuals and as organizations.  We often allow the fear of this vast unknown to entrench us in the status quo of the past and present.

What we have to begin to realize is that we are not getting kids ready for jobs that are yet to exist…

We are preparing them to be agile and adaptable in the face of profound shifts.

Which will eventually require some very deep shifts in our systems, our focus, our structures, processes, and even our beliefs and behaviors.  Just as we remain content-focused in skills-based world, change will be necessary in a societal landscape that is been driven relentlessly forward by the exponential pace of technology and digital disruption.

What has driven education in the past, is no longer sufficient or necessarily relevant for the future.

However, this is not some new phenomena, in fact the world of work has been very open about the skills necessary for future success and how those skill-sets are changing, especially as technological abilities in robotics and artificial intelligence continue to disrupt the workplace.

We continue to see skills such as critical thinking, creativity, adaptive and agile thinking, social and emotional intelligence, cognitive flexibility and load management, and collaborative and design attributes gaining greater traction as necessary and needed for those in and/or moving into the present and future workforce.

Whatever those skills are or will be in the future, awareness will be paramount in preparing our future generation to be agile and adaptable to these profound shifts we now face.

According to the Institute of the Future (IFTF), “To be successful in the next decade, individuals will need to demonstrate foresight in navigating a rapidly shifting landscape of organizational forms and skill requirements.  They will increasingly be called upon to continually reassess the skills they need, and quickly put together the right resources to develop and update these.  Workers in the future will need to be adaptable lifelong learners.”

However, it will not only be individuals that will need to become adaptable learners, remaining agile to our exponentially shifting world we now live in…so must our educational organizations if they are to remain significant, dynamic, relevant hubs of learning, innovation and transformation in the face of these seismic shifts and changes.