Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Wisdom of the Fox and the Hedgehog

There is much debate about the kind skills we require for success in the 21st Century. It can be argued that what we learn in school and college often falls short of what we need in everyday life.

Employers look for more than academic achievement when considering who to take on - in many cases they seek evidence of a broader set of skills encompassing problem solving, creative thinking, social skills and ethical appreciation.

Consider the ancient Greek parable by Archilochus that contrasts the skills of two familiar animals:
"The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing." 

I think this is a useful metaphor to help us appreciate the complexity of the mix of skills required for life in the 21st Century. A fox ranges over quite a wide territory and is regarded as generally clever because of its adaptability and capacity to get the most out of opportunities. The skills of the fox are driven by curiosity and a need to survive on meagre and unpredictable sources of food. The fox is a great generalist.

The hedgehog has a great strategy for dealing with predators - it rolls itself in a ball and presents its large array of spines as a defence. Any animal, a fox for example,  confronting a hedgehog is likely to be repelled by the prospect of a prickly experience. The hedgehog can dig deep and survives on the insects and snails in a small area. The hedgehog is a specialist.

When you go to college you select 'one big thing' that you intend to be good at; be it Business, Computers, Law and so on. Similarly, some people focus on a trade or music or sport and invest a lot of time and energy to develop the specialist skills involved. We use the term 'domain specific skills' when we refer to competence associated with such disciplines or contexts.

Clearly we expect graduate accountants to be able to generate and interpret financial reports and we require technical skills from engineering and computer students and so on. But we also expect much more. There are few professions that do not require problem solving skills and there are few career paths where success can be achieved by working alone without collaboration with others.

Also, there is little merit in being "a jack of all trades and a master of none". Only by focusing on the development of a specialism or expertise can you develop certain kinds of insights. You need to experience how to set goals and achieve them.  Only through specialisms will you genuinely appreciate the nature of practice and persistence. There are ways of knowing the world that require prerequisite skills, for example mathematical competence for Physics, and therefore specialist skills will always be in demand. In fact, many argue that there is a premium on specialist skills and an over supply of generalists. Too many foxes and not enough hedgehogs!

However, in the complex world of the 21st Century, more and more we need people who are both specialist and generalist combined. This is often called a "T" profile of skills - deep knowledge in one area and broad knowledge across a wider range of contexts. This is what we look for in our graduates. A specialist who is worldly wise, one who can think creatively, work with others, cope with uncertainty and manage unpredictable events.  

In short it is not enough to be like a hedgehog and have one big skill and it is not enough to be a generalist like to fox.  You need to have the characteristics of both.

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