Friday, 5 January 2007

The Knowledge Economy - why soft skills matter

According to Will Hutton, Chief Executive of the Work Foundation , the "knowledge economy" (not easy to define, in fact there is a 31 page paper 'Defining the Knowledge Economy' on the website) - illustrated by sectors such as business services, education, finance, telecoms - is fast becoming the biggest contributor to UK GDP. The growth of the knowledge economy started in the 1980s, he says, when traditional manufacturing (steel, transport, coal etc) started to decline.

One can take a systems view of these changes - that as one economy (manufacturing) shrinks, another (knowledge) grows to take its place. One might be tempted to think "well that's OK then, there is still equilibrium". But the more important point is that the kind of skills you needed to survive then are not the same skills you need to survive now and in the future .

As Hutton points out, what distinguishes the survivors from the casualties of the declining manufacturing sector (or indeed any declining sector) are soft skills. Now, in this particular programme (' What Makes Britain Rich?' ) he didn't elaborate, but we can guess the kind of things he was referring to - maybe resilience, emotional maturity, empathy, creativity, leadership, negotiation, team working, willingness to learn, self-awareness...there are many more.

This leads me to question whether the changes in the UK education system are really keeping pace with these changes in the world of employment. We do seem to be somewhat more focussed on league tables and targets than on developing our children's soft skills, and preparing them to become adults, workers, parents, inspirational leaders and responsible citizens. Hutton states that the new knowledge economy in the UK is here to stay - we can't turn the clock back. Therefore we need to ensure that the development of soft skills appears higher on the agenda.

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