Adapting core skills, and growing our skillset, is something we all need to do on a regular basis. No matter what your current age or position, as time progresses there is always a risk that your strengths and skills might lose their luster. My suspicion is that the continued relevance of our skill set might depend on how broadly, how fundamentally, we define skills. The more broadly we look, the more likely we’ll see how our skills are useful in different settings.
So this month we asked the Chefs: How have you adapted your core skills to rapidly changing times?
David Smith: Something about old dogs and new tricks springs to mind…
I have deliberately sought out roles and challenges that meant that a high degree of change was ever present. So I suppose my core skillset is thus ‘Wrangler of Problems both Wicked and Otherwise’. My skills were built around organizing stuff and people (Project Managing – Learned on the job) and Information Architecture, UI and Usability stuff (again, learned on the job). Then some analysis stuff (rediscovering the skills from my scientific career).
In short, I used to build things. I used to think it up; iterate with people; architect it and then get it built. I transferred from the waterfall approach to building things to the Agile approach and had to navigate the change management that was required around that transition. My biggest change has been to change from being a key builder of stuff, to building, leading, and developing teams that build stuff.
The objective is to grow or acquire the sets of skills and capabilities that are needed for a team to be able to solve problems — and for that team to bring along people for whom the business of developing a thing is simply not an activity they have done regularly, if at all. A colleague and I have developed a set of principles, that we expect our teams to follow. It’s possibly the most important artefact I’ve ever (co)created. It’s a big poster, stuck up around the IT area and it forms part of annual objectives and much more. When I interview – I’m looking for signs that the person will be able to cope with the principles I/we hold so dear. In fact, looking for talent has been something I’ve had to develop extensively given the challenges, shall we say, of working in the not-for-profit space. A massive inspiration for me was Michael Lewis’ superb book Moneyball where the concept of looking in unusual places has proved to be a winning one for me.
And now I find myself looking even more strategically at issues of governance (and as an Agile person – it’s effective systems of control I actually care about) and how to build a framework that allows me, my team, and my organization to best exploit to opportunities of the great acceleration.
Quick tips: 1) Conferences! And don’t discount the ‘free ones’. Both Amazon and Microsoft do brilliant free events for the price of a train ticket. And there’s others 2) I found great value in the Belbin self-perception test – it transformed my own view of myself. You might find it, or something similar, useful. 3) Get yourself a mentor. It doesn’t need to be a massive thing. One of the best bits of mentoring I ever had, was from the UK CEO of Proctor and Gamble over a couple of pints (very) late one evening towards the end of a training course.
Alice Meadows: The skills I have needed most throughout my career are relationship management and communications (written, spoken, and listening), both of which are (somewhat derogatorily) referred to as soft skills. Happily, however, this means they are also quite transferable and, in my experience, with a bit of repurposing, they have been pretty easy to adapt to the changing needs of our community.
In terms of relationship management, perhaps the biggest change has been the rise of video conferencing. And I’m a big fan!
In terms of relationship management, perhaps the biggest change has been the rise of video conferencing. And I’m a big fan! It’s so much easier today than it was even 5-10 years ago — not to mention so much less expensive, or even free — that there’s really no excuse for not using it. It makes a huge difference to be able to see people’s expressions when you’re talking to them, and to be able to adjust your tone and your message accordingly. It’s also more productive — it encourages us all to participate more fully. No more putting yourself on mute and answering email rather than focusing on the topic at hand…
On the communications front, video conferencing technology has also been invaluable. It’s led to a huge increase in online events — webinars, ritual conferences, and more — that can be delivered free or at very low cost to a much wider audience than an in-person event. And, as the technology has improved and my confidence in it and my ability to troubleshoot have increased, I’ve come to find it a really helpful addition to my comms toolkit. Adopting social media was also a bit of a challenge initially. I resisted the lure of Twitter for several years before realizing — somewhat begrudgingly — that I couldn’t legitimately claim to be a communications professional if I wasn’t using it. And actually, after getting the hang of it I’ve found Twitter an invaluable engagement tool for listening to, sharing with, responding to, and getting feedback from our community — all in real time. I get a real buzz from live tweeting and especially from meeting my fellow tweeters in person. For last year’s Peer Review Week we experimented (successfully) with Reddit, so that’s now on my list of things to learn more about. However, I am still resisting Instagram — for now!
Adopting social media was also a bit of a challenge initially. I resisted the lure of Twitter for several years before realizing – somewhat begrudgingly – that I couldn’t legitimately claim to be a communications professional if I wasn’t using it.
Lettie Conrad: Learning! I have always wanted to be a life-long student (and this part-time PhD certainly feels like it’s taking a lifetime!). But, in our highly volatile information economy, adopting new skills, perspectives, and methods is key to success. This requires a healthy dose of curiosity, of course, and a willingness to take the time to listen and consider new ideas. It means knowing where to go, who to ask, and how to use information effectively during the learning process. Perhaps most importantly, it demands a degree of openness and vulnerability, to be willing to say “I don’t know” or “teach me,” and to be comfortable (enough) with uncertainty during the journey.
Of course, learning is the process by which we might acquire new skills, but the capacity for learning itself is a muscle I am conditioning on a regular basis. Innovation is a concept that is easily thrown into a realm of hype and abstraction, but the basic formula of bringing new modes of thinking to a problem is one I am working to refine in my everyday work with publishers and service providers.
This requires a healthy dose of curiosity, of course, and a willingness to take the time to listen and consider new ideas.
Charlie Rapple: I think my core skills are communication, numeracy, problem solving, and tech savviness. At the start of my career, as an account manager for a publishing tech platform, these skills helped me build relationships with and support clients – learning proprietary platforms and training clients, explaining technical concepts simply, troubleshooting any platform issues, figuring out ‘hacks’ to help clients achieve goals, managing any difficult discussions with sensitivity and focus, and helping them experiment with emerging tech such as social media (ahh, glory days).
As my career progressed, my communications skills became more about corporate / brand communications — helping companies articulate their vision and mission in a clear and meaningful way, or helping them to persuasively distinguish their products from those of competitors. My numeracy skills, which in the early days of my career had really only been useful for budget management, began to come to the fore in projects such as modelling new pricing strategies, or analyzing market research data. My problem solving skills helped me shape product development, translating market needs into intuitive, useful products and features. My tendency towards early adoption of new tech had taken me from being a learner to a leader, advising others on strategies for social media or mobile product development.
Today, having co-founded my own company 7 years ago, these skills have continued to develop in new and unexpected directions. Communication skills have become as much about internal as external communications — I’ve worked on positive influencing and successful, collegiate relationships. Numeracy has become about business planning and direction – projections and targets, performance analysis, modeling of alternative strategies. Problem solving skills continue to be useful in product development and positioning, and tech skills of course continue to be critical both for day-to-day productivity (everything from new Excel hacks and keyboard shortcuts to being able to troubleshoot the projector at a big pitch..) to reputational credibility (knowing the research technology landscape into which we fit) and business success (identifying integration opportunities).
Jasmine Wallace: When I arrived on the publishing scene, I was responsible for assisting with the transition of a small group of editors from snail-mail to using a peer review management system online. This was a foreign concept for many in that group and to my surprise some refused to transition. In fact, several editors opted for retirement instead. At the time I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t be more open to the change. After all, the peer review system was developed specifically to improve their workflows and designed to save them time and resources; and more importantly, allow them to be more efficient in getting research out to the communities they were serving. This taught me very early on that not everyone embraces change, nor are they willing to adapt to it – even when it’s critical to their future success.
The change has not stopped since those early days, and I don’t think it will settle down anytime soon. As a result, I’ve made a point to acquire and grow core skills that are inherently nimble and flexible. I’ve enhanced my hard-technical skills – such as, writing, data analysis, and project management – through practice, repetition, and education. But while these skills have proved to be important in helping me increase my productivity and efficiency, I believe that as we move deeper into the knowledge era my soft skills will be what keeps me progressive. Developing interpersonal skills that are not easily taught, such as communication, leadership and emotional intelligence has helped me to both identify and adapt my core skillset to different uses.
Developing interpersonal skills that are not easily taught, such as communication, leadership and emotional intelligence has helped me to both identify and adapt my core skillset to different uses.
For example, in strengthening my leadership skillset I’ve improved my capacity to take big problems and simplify them. When I was put on a team to help develop the most efficient peer review workflow for a new open access journal, it was those leadership skills that helped me to go beyond practical questions about the peer review system, and instead recognize, respond and manage the necessary changes which would help my organization use this new platform to offer more value to our community. We covered all the standard needs for starting a new journal, and we added Twitter input fields in our submission form. This allowed us to both capture new and useful descriptive metadata on our authors; and additionally, gave our most active social media-using Editor-in-Chief the ability to shout out authors immediately post acceptance. Giving our community direct access to the experts in their field in a new way and more insight into peer review.
Judy Luther: This is a great question as it challenged me to think more broadly in order to articulate a thoughtful response. Given the rate of technological development and specialization, it is easy to feel confronted by emerging areas in which we lack a depth of knowledge. And while we have access to worlds of information today, few of us have the time to delve deeply into new fields in a structured way and acquire the experience that provides insights. Kudos to those who do!
In a technology-focused world, the value of core skills or soft skills such as communicating with others may be assumed and can be overlooked. Recognizing and developing such skills takes time as we learn through our experiences and interactions with others. Core skills affect how well we can make use of what we do know. Hiring managers are often looking for collaborative and innovative individuals. What we are coming to acknowledge, is that who we are and how we work, is as important as what we know.
Working in and around higher education through three associated but very different careers (librarian, sales manager, consultant) I embraced lifelong learning to manage those transitions.
Working in and around higher education through three associated but very different careers (librarian, sales manager, consultant) I embraced lifelong learning to manage those transitions. Recognizing how my basic qualities of curiosity and persistence supported skills in problem solving and teamwork, required reflection over time. These skills may not be obvious to each of us and are not easily quantified in a world of credentials and badges.
Talented individuals who thrive in areas far afield from their core area often provide us with examples: such as the VP of IT (in a company I worked for) whose PhD was in Philosophy and a software company in Texas that hired an anthropologist. While this conclusion was not my intent when I started this post, I offer the humble observation that the arts and humanities in higher education is essential to a strong workforce in a rapidly changing environment.
Karin Wulf: When I think of what skills I have adapted for changing times, I come back to my core training as a historian. Historians think about context, context, context. How do we understand a problem before we try to resolve it? What is the evidence for the way we have framed that problem, and what is its source? Who is engaged in that framing, and why? There isn’t a circumstance that I confront in my position directing a non-profit research institute that isn’t influenced by this method of critical analysis.
How do we understand a problem, before we try to resolve it? What is the evidence for the way we have framed that problem, and what is its source? Who is engaged in that framing, and why?
I had sort of assumed, when I transitioned almost 7 years ago from being a scholar, teacher, and editor, to having a much more varied set of responsibilities, that being a historian would help me to navigate the landscapes that are indeed changing. It’s obvious, for example, to everyone who reads The Scholarly Kitchen, but perhaps worth emphasizing again, that scholarly publishing exists within a wider information ecology and economy. And the challenges that are rocking that wider world of information — economic, cultural, and political — are often more important for our work than the closer-in phenomena we often discuss, such as issues in higher education, including library budgets, debates around Open Access, or impact metrics. The biggest issues of disinformation, AI, and the future of representative self-government are shaping our sectors in ways we are only beginning to appreciate. Thinking about our position within these contexts, how we understand how our challenges are framed, who is framing them and based on what evidence — that’s something I bring to my organization, but also to the different roles I play in scholarly communications, including how and what I write here.
But what I hadn’t anticipated was just how significantly my training as a historian would play a role in my day to day work of managing budget and staff, interacting with governing boards, and setting programming and strategy. I have learned new skills, and I hope I will continue to learn a lot more. But establishing context and assessing evidence is something I have to call on every day.
Ann Michael: So many of the Chefs discussed soft skills. I couldn’t agree more. Soft skills are fundamental to change. It is often through those skills (relationship building, listening, reflection, open mindedness, collaboration, etc.) that we are able to sense and understand impending changes even before they arrive. We can see when something just isn’t right or seems to be moving in an unanticipated direction. Then we can apply our other skills to defining and elaborating on the issue at hand. For me, those other skills would be contextualizing, analyzing, strategizing, and coming up with an executable plan.
Just as Charlie mentions, the uses for our core skills might change and grow over time, but I believe that very often they start with natural aptitudes or interests that we continue to nourish in different settings. We often do that because we genuinely enjoy those skills. I have been a data geek for as long as I can remember. At 16 I used to prepare and track my monthly budget in a notebook, at 28 (when I could afford a computer) it was in Excel, now it’s online in an integrated software service. The tools changed, but the interest in knowing, tracking, and adapting did not.
Mostly, pursuing and deepening my core interests has evolved as both creativity and technology continue to evolve. Like many of us, I mostly learn from those around me wherever I might be. Of course there’s also reading, exploring other industries, and going back to school. Lifelong learning and curiosity is a buffet. We can eat as much as we want but we need to pace ourselves and sometimes we need to rest after a big meal. This past year I finished a MS in Business Analytics to take a bigger leap in updating my business analytics skills. This year it will be some online learning and maybe an online course or two. I need to digest!
But at the end of the day, I think we find the energy to grow not because we’re trying to stay relevant or useful, but because there is something we do that we love. That we are. If you can identify those skills that represent what you really are at your core, you will not be able to stop the urge to grow and expand them.
Now it’s your turn. How have you adapted your core skills to rapidly changing times?