We often hear people say that the pace of change is increasing. Norms and expectations are changing. There are more pressures and demands placed on us as we attempt to keep up. In the context of technology we’ve also talked of how we prioritize our choices. What do we do? And when do we pass on something new? But how are we managing this on an individual level? Where are we (or should we) be investing time in building our skills?

This month we asked the Chefs: What new skill have you developed in the last five years? Why is it important? 

girl solving math problem at chalkboard

Alice Meadows: This was a surprisingly easy question to answer for once, because just over four years ago I joined ORCID and was instantly plunged into the geeky world of open research infrastructure — something which I knew woefully little about, as I soon found out! I was on a steep learning curve, which quickly got even steeper because, after initially being hired as Director of Communications, about six months later I also took on responsibility for our support team. That meant I had to properly get to grips with at least the basics of our technology. As somewhat of a lifelong technophobe this was a major challenge, but the day I managed to make a successful API call I knew I was going to be okay.

I’m still by no means a technical expert, but I can now have a reasonably intelligent conversation about ORCID’s technology — and what’s more I actually enjoy doing so! And that’s really important for several reasons. It means that instead of being intimidated by the techies I’m confident enough to ask them to explain things to me in plain English when I don’t understand. Which in turn means that I can communicate the great infrastructure they’re building in language that everyone in our community can understand.

And that’s critical because, at the end of the day, to succeed we need to get both our technology and our communications right. It’s hard to communicate effectively about technology without some degree of understanding of how it works. Conversely, knowing too much about the technology can make it difficult to communicate effectively. Four years later, I like to think I’ve (mostly!) got the balance just about right 🙂

It’s hard to communicate effectively about technology without some degree of understanding of how it works.

Siân Harris: This is an interesting timescale for me as it was almost exactly five years ago that I started working for INASP. Moving from an editorial role to a communications role has inevitably involved learning plenty of things about marketing and communications terminologies and practices – and moving from the commercial sector into an NGO has exposed me to different language and some entirely new ways of working. But I’m going to slightly shift the question as I don’t think the most significant things that I have learned over the last five years have been skills so much as ways of thinking and awareness of gaps.

This time five years ago, as I was tidying up my CV and finishing off editing what would turn out to be one of my last issues of Research Information, I was pretty confident that I knew how research and scholarly communication worked, that I knew a lot of key people and companies, and that I was following the major global trends. After all, I’d been writing about it for over a decade and in the sector as a researcher and then an employee of a scholarly publishing company for even longer.

Over the past five years I have learned something of what I didn’t know then and to recognize more of my own biases. I have spoken with some of the 900+ editors of journals from South Asia, Africa, and Central America that are hosted on the Journals Online platforms – and I know there are many more journals that are not hosted on such a platform at this time. I have met and, in some cases, mentored a few of the many thousands of bright, dedicated, enthusiastic researchers across the countries we work with and seen the extra challenges that they often face in getting recognition for their research and their expertise. I have learned about research in important areas that I would never have thought of. I have seen innovative approaches to try to bring that research to the attention of policymakers. I’ve learned about the value of partnership and how much we can learn from each other. I’ve learned how important it is to ensure we have global voices to solve global problems.

And, briefly on the actual question about skills, I also learned how to film and edit videos on my smartphone the other day. I made this one, which isn’t perfect but I’m pretty proud of it as a first attempt and a useful addition to the storytelling toolkit of a communications specialist.

I’ve learned about the value of partnership and how much we can learn from each other. I’ve learnt how important it is to ensure we have global voices to solve global problems.

Tim Vines: The best thing I’ve learned how to do in recent years is nothing – the ability to press pause and give yourself time to think calmly and clearly before taking action. Modern communications and social media give us so much opportunity for near-instantaneous responses, and so often the choices you make in those moments are not the best choices out there. It’s not that they’re always terrible, it’s just that you rarely think of the really good course of action if you act right away. The bigger the problem, the more nothing I do, or at least push the issue into my subconscious and work on something else for a while.

The best thing I’ve learned how to do in recent years is nothing – the ability to press pause and give yourself time to think calmly and clearly before taking action.

Lettie Conrad: Listening! Both in my ongoing efforts to support innovations in scholarly publishing, and to facilitate my own learning and growth, I have been focused these last few years on listening. I always have lots to say (some of you who know me will agree I can ramble on sometimes!) but equally, if not more important, is learning to truly slow down and focus on what others are saying.

The usual active listening tips of taking notes, repeating concepts back for confirmation or clarification, etc. are all useful. But, honestly, I have found mindfulness meditation to be a key tool for me in slowing down the rat-race pace and all the internal chatter in order to have space enough to perceive, interpret and engage with ideas from others.

Especially in this era of global disruption on many levels, and high-pitched information overload, I think we can only find a path forward by collaborating and partnering across our various sectors. Successful collaborations require good communication, which begins with effective listening.👂

I have found mindfulness meditation to be a key tool for me in slowing down the rat-race pace and all the internal chatter in order to have space enough to perceive, interpret and engage with ideas from others.

Haseeb Md Irfanullah: When you have past more than 15 years of your career, you are often expected to act or make decisions based on your experience, insight, and vision. You are not invited to organized training or to participate in a mentoring program to improve your skills unless there is a new component of ERP to be used or a new compliance to be followed by your organization. Such an absence is probably more true when you work in a senior position in a knowledge-based organization, which takes for granted that you know many things and are expert on some, which you will shape as you grow older. Spaces for new skills is kind of limited.

But, I can identify three changes I’ve experienced over the past few years.

The advocacy training I participated in in 2013 changed my whole thinking process. It helped me, for example, how to use my analytical skills to investigate the journal publishing ecosystem of my country, how to use the findings to bring institutions together, and how to articulate the capacity needs for journal publishing standards and practices into a collective vision and action. A few years have passed and I am now trying to connect my engagements with different stakeholders to form a lattice of efforts to make the research system better for Bangladesh, and, hopefully, for others as well.

…how to use my analytical skills to investigate the journal publishing ecosystem of my country, how to use the findings to bring institutions together, and how to articulate the capacity needs for journal publishing standards and practices into a collective vision and action.

In 2016, I challenged myself to learn Chinese! I essentially wanted to push myself to commit to something that has no direct, immediate, professional benefits. I wanted to see if I could sit in the student’s chair after 18 years, attend lectures after office hours, learn basics of a totally new language, and pass the test. After doing all these, I felt confident to do (reasonably) out-of-character things! Sometimes we all need to do it, right?

Last year was a turning point in my career. I left an apparently secure job and became unemployed for the first time since I completed my PhD in 2004. While it seemed quite a wild move (kind of, it was!), one of the reasons for such a step was — I wanted to redefine myself. Although I knew what I would face, such an attempt is always tough in a society which almost always defines you by your profession, organization, and position, not by the value you carry, beliefs you stand for, or the contribution you make as an individual. I am still learning to redefine myself, and I am loving it!

Jasmine Wallace: Skill development requires you to take a look at your goals and identify the gaps in your experience which hinder your ability to execute your plans successfully. Taking a look at my skillset toolbox and future goals I realized that in order to accomplish them, more exposure would be required. So in the last five years I have been developing and honing the skill of vulnerability – often defined as putting yourself out there and being open to possibilities and opportunities. This skill has required me to focus on becoming a more effective communicator, collaborator, analytical thinker and calculated risk-taker. Developing this skill is important as it encourages courageously stepping into a space that is unfamiliar, and at times uncomfortable, so that you can be more effective and productive leader.

…in the last five years I have been developing and honing the skill of vulnerability – often defined as putting yourself out there and being open to possibilities and opportunities

Vulnerability changes how you approach disruption. Applying this skill to the challenges being faced in the industry makes it easier to take on increasingly more complex endeavors. Take for example reevaluating whether processes, procedures, and overall business models will be not just sustainable, but also grow organizations. The need for transparency and openness has shaken our industry at its core. In addition, advances in technology have made information more readily available and easy to access by a larger group of people, who in turn demand more from our data, content, products, and services. And this is just the early stages of the transitions taking place in our publishing world. Vulnerability welcomes these types of disturbances and interruptions because in wrestling with the problems, and all the subsequent issues, solutions are revealed.

According to the expert in vulnerability Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” Having taken time to intentionally build and develop this skill has been one of my greatest accomplishments. It has made me bravely stand up and step out. And it has been critical to my development and success.

David Smith: For me, the most important skill I’ve learned over the last five years, is how to run and embed the ‘Design Sprint’ as the initiation of the process of bringing a product / service offering to market, or indeed, revisiting, refreshing, and reevaluation a product or service. You can read more about the design sprint methodology but very briefly, it’s a time constrained 5 days or (more often) less process that investigates and evaluates a problem through the following phases:

UNDERSTAND – business opportunity or whatever – aka the problem to be solved

DIVERGE – Explore ways to address the issues identified in the 1st phase (without constraint of practicality – this is vital, and hard for people to do)

CONVERGE – bring those ideas back to 1 or more that can be

PROTOYPE – turned into some artifacts that can be

TEST – assessed by stakeholders or actual or potential customers.

It’s intense. It’s invigorating, and despite the concerns that come up about the time needed (FIVE DAYS!!!! OMG!!!) I know of no better, more effective way of getting to the guts of an idea and whether it has legs or not. Far better to take up to five days than 6 months or more of a team working at great expense. Bad ideas will struggle to make it through this process, especially if (and this is the the other reason why I’m such a fan) you empower the team who are working on the design sprint. It’s a brilliant team building exercise and will give you great insight in to the way a group of people will think and then approach a problem.

…the most important skill I’ve learned over the last five years, is how to run and embed the ‘Design Sprint’ as the initiation of the process of bringing a product/service offering to market, or indeed, revisiting, refreshing, and reevaluation a product or service.

My colleague and I introduced this to our organization and have run a number of these since that first one a few years back. The very first one we did involved people from three engineering organizations who had never worked together before. Since then, we’ve used the approach to prototype up the first MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and test it before building the first actual version. We’ve used it to try and understand big “What are we doing here? / What should we do next?” type problems as well as more focused incremental developments.

Judy Luther: I can think of several ‘hard’ skills I would like to be able to say I developed that would affect “what I do”. However, it is the soft skills that I value the most as they affect “how I work” and these run counter to the popular version of multitasking. It is easy to feel overwhelmed with the volume of news and information from traditional channels and social media. We have at our fingertips access to the ideas and thoughts of our peers and many respected industry leaders. Keeping up with developments such as the news on Plan S earlier this year was challenging at best.

Yet the most satisfying aspect of consulting occurs when I take time to contemplate a topic or situation and think about it from many different perspectives. This occurs most often when I’m working on an issue for a client or writing a white paper or blog post. Creating a block of time enables me to do my best work. That has previously occurred outside of normal work hours at the expense of a more balanced life.

Creating a block of time enables me to do my best work. That has previously occurred outside of normal work hours at the expense of a more balanced life.

The conditions that are conducive to contemplation for me are a clear space – in terms of physical (office), time (calendar), and mental (brain). Time of day doesn’t matter as much as the ability to focus without the usual distractions and interruptions. Creating time to think has been well worth the effort for me — gaining insights, framing a perspective, and sparking curiosity. Prioritizing my schedule in this way affects how my work is prioritized. As a result, I make time to learn about new developments that might not otherwise appear on my ‘to do’ list. What began a couple of years ago as an effort to streamline work has had a surprising effect on how much I enjoy my work.

Ann Michael: Although most of my work is related to strategy development, I’ve always been an “execution geek.” Finding the balance between structure and chaos to effectively innovate, progress, and grow is one of my greatest joys.

So…what skills have I had to develop? On the hard skill side, I’ve spent time increasing my skills in data analysis and in understanding what data can and can’t do for us. This is another balancing act between data-driven decision making and human understanding (which is why I prefer the term data-informed decision making!).

On the soft side, I’m with Lettie on developing better listening skills. I’m also with Tim, Lettie, and Judy on making space. I am horrible at this. I often say that my calendar is like a game of Tetris (it’s even color-coded so it REALLY looks like Tetris). Appointments keep floating in and I keep trying to find an open spot. Like in the game, white space in my calendar is considered a failure! I’ve been actively working to change my habits about time management in the last few months and expect it’s going to take a while.

That’s another interesting point. Developing new skills is an ongoing process. I’ve been working on listening for decades. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, but one can always continue to get better. I’ve been working on data analysis since my first graduate degree a long long time ago, but things change and there is always more to learn. Personally, I’m excited by the fact that we’re never done!

So now it’s your turn. What new skills have you been developing over the last five years?

Ann Michael

Ann Michael

Ann Michael is Chief Digital Officer at PLOS charged with driving the development and execution of the organization’s overall digital and supporting data strategy. Working collaboratively across PLOS, and through industry collaboration, her team will facilitate the strategic evaluation and evolution of PLOS platforms and processes. Prior to joining PLOS, Ann was CEO of Delta Think. There she gained broad exposure to society and commercial scholarly publishers, librarians and library consortia, funders, and researchers. She focused on strategy and innovation in scholarly communications. Ann is an ardent believer in data informed decision-making and was instrumental in the 2017 launch of the Delta Think Open Access Data & Analytics Tool, a comprehensive, interactive, regularly updated data set with diverse visualizations and extensive analysis, which tracks and assesses the impact of open access uptake and policies on the scholarly communications ecosystem. Ann is a Past President of SSP, a Board Director at Joule (a Canadian Medical Association company), Board Chair of Delta Think, and a member of the Learned Publishing Editorial Board. She has a MS from SUNY Stony Brook in Policy Analysis and Public Management and an MS in Business Analytics from the NYU Stern School.

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Discussion

8 Thoughts on "Ask The Chefs: New Skills"

Over the past five years, I’ve developed podcasting skills, especially those related to licensing the components — like music — that help podcasts draw an audience. This includes measuring the audience and understanding / overcoming the obstacles to licensing.

Great idea for a post, it would also be helpful to hear more about the “how” though. I’d be very interested to know what kind of courses, sessions, articles, tools, etc. helped to create the skills and expertise named above!

Can’t speak for the others, but I got a second degree in Business Analytics to help me learn more about data science and its application. I had foundational courses in business analytics, statistics, operations analysis, decision making with optimization models and simulations, programming courses in R, Python, and SQL and additional coursework in big data, artificial intelligence, data ethics & privacy, and data modeling. It was amazing!

Very interesting and insightful. I would add that the skill I developed over some 40 years in publishing was to accept change (though many of my comments seem to challenge it!). Like the speed of light, change is an ever constant!

The most important skill I learned over the past few years is how to block people on Twitter.

Ha! I would love to note that in the last few weeks I have switched from accessing Twitter on my laptop on the Twitter website to using the TweetBot app, which I was already using on my phone. This was largely driven by noticing a huge increase in the number of sponsored tweets I was seeing, almost one in every 10 (and on Tweetbot, these seem to be gone). What I really love about it so far is that it is far less compelling and hypnotic than what Twitter offers directly — I find myself checking it less often, and spending less time on it. I feel much less manipulated and that I’m more productive in my Twitter activities.

XML tagging! Been aware of it for close to 20 years, but now have to review and understand how our content is tagged in a deeper way than ever before. Seeing myself more as a technology person rather than just publishing. Content keeps getting cheaper, while tech skills become ever more valuable.

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