An economic argument for compassion

Saturday, 30 April 2016 14:09 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.


A widening chasm between business and education

In the summer of 2015, the multinational professional services firm, EY, announced that it would no longer be using degree classifications as the principle criterion for assessing applications for employment. In making their decision, EY joined a group of multinational corporations, including KPMG, Deloitte and PwC, who are taking action to close the gap between what employers want to see in their colleagues and what schools and universities are paying attention to. This gap has been talked about extensively for many years, but it’s only recently that such assertive action has been taken by so many influential businesses.

So why are firms acting now?

The answer to this question rests in the idea that the gap between what employers need and what is prioritised in education has become a chasm. This distance is widening at such a rate that competitiveness, growth and even survival are at threat. The education/employment gap has become business-critical. The forces that are opening this distance are, on one side, a powerful inertia in the education system, and on the other side, fundamental shifts in the way business is being done.

A shift in the nature of business

In the past, repetitive cycles, hierarchical structures and centralised decision-making characterised much of business and employment. But ask employers to describe business and work today, and they are more likely to use words like volatile, complex, hyper-connected, decentralised, distributed, mass-participation, self-service, do-it-yourself and sharing.

From the user-generated content that powers Facebook, to the 1.5 million craftspeople who host their sales on Etsy, in our new world, businesses need staff, customers and suppliers who take the lead, make their own decisions, and solve their own problems. Companies need people who are self-empowered.

And as the economic value of empowerment becomes more apparent, businesses are becoming increasingly empowering. Robin Chase, Founder and CEO of ZipCar refers to this shift in business as the Peers Inc. model, arguing that empowering companies “grow faster, learn faster, and adapt faster […] giving rise to a business environment that works very differently  – almost the opposite  –  to 15, or even 10, years ago. Where once, companies succeeded by inducing scarcity and raising barriers through patents, trademarks, copyrights, and certifications, today, the most value is created by opening assets up and maximizing the participation of individuals  – to experiment, to localise, to adapt, to innovate.”

What companies and economies need

Businesses and universities have extensively studied the knowledge, skills and qualities that define self-empowered employees (the Partnership for 21st Century Skills took an early leading role). However, for the large majority of young people, this research has not yet translated into changes in their experience of education. As a result, education systems have become increasingly ineffective at serving economies and by extension they have become increasingly ineffective at serving the societies and natural environments within which economies exist.

With companies now taking bold steps to align hiring criteria with learning objectives, it seems likely that the usual favourites of STEM, digital literacy, creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, leadership, and problem-solving will feature prominently. But while these skills are certainly necessary, they might not be entirely sufficient, and employers would be wise to consider putting compassion high on their list of hiring criteria.

This article was first published here on Virgin.