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What’s My Next Skill?

| June 21, 2016

by Jim Bruce

Last week, many of us participated in the 2016 MOR Leaders Conference, Reimagining IT as University Needs and Technology Evolve.  There we were encouraged to think about our university’s IT and what it could become.  And, we were asked to identify one idea that we each could take action on?  I want to take this question one step further:  What skill or competency or practice do you need to develop or strengthen in order to take that one action?
Erika Andersen, author and founding partner of Proteus International, points out, as did the MOR Conference, that the world we’re now in is at a point of rapid change.  The obvious implication is that you cannot rely solely on your current knowledge and expertise to even keep up, much less to advance either personally or organizationally.  So, then, how do you go about identifying areas in which personal development will yield a good return on the investment of your time and effort?
Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, introduced the “hedgehog” concept*.  For the hedgehog, the concept is survival.  For an organization, it’s being as great an organization as it can be.  Collins’ research found that great organizations focus on three things:  First, what drives their economic engine.  Second, what they can be best at.  And, third, what they are most passionate about.
Anderson, in her consulting work, has concluded that this framework is also good at helping an individual figure out what he or she needs to do to be great. 
How might this work for you?
1.  Driving the economic engine:  The word “economic” creates an immediate obstacle to those of us in academia as universities don’t see themselves as having a profit motive.  Collins recognized this in his monograph, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, and there talks in terms of resources of all kinds.  Anderson suggests that here we focus on organizational success asking the question “How can you grow in a way that will help the organization succeed?”  What specifically do you need to learn to enable your organization to be successful at reimagining IT at your university?  Is it learning to automate routine processes, thus saving staff time and resources?  Is it learning how to provision compute and storage resources for faculty research in the cloud instead of on stand-alone, locally-maintained machines?  Is it improving your skills at building relationships?  Communicating?  Developing staff?  All of these might improve the success of your organization.
2.  Best at:  After you make a list of what you might work on that would be of value to your organization, think about what is on the list that you could really become excellent at.  One way of approaching this is to look at what you are good at now.  If I’m good at building relationships within my organization and I enjoy helping people, could I step that up to building relationships with faculty and helping them better use technology in their teaching and research?  If I’m good at organizing things, could I learn to be a first-rate project manager?
3.  Passionate at:  Once you have developed a sense of where your potential strengths match with useful areas for organizational development, you have to be really honest with yourself and ask how interested you are in the hard work of further developing yourself in each of those areas.  Say you’ve identified three skills that would significantly help your organizational unit be more successful than it currently is.  And, with hard work, you believe you could become much better than you are.  Which one do you select to work on?  Take time to envision what success would look like in each instance, how hard you’d have to work to be very good, and how rewarding it would be to your organization, your team, and you.  Ask yourself, how do these areas speak to your passions?  
Anderson closes her essay by writing:  “The key is to focus on skills that will propel your organization forward, that play to your strengths, and that you feel passionate about learning.”
So, the time is now, the choice is yours.  What are you working on now, or plan to work on, to learn or become better at?  If you are not now working on something, you are most likely actually drifting slowly behind.  That might be something you need to change.
I trust that you’ll make this week a great one.  .  .  .     jim
The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
                                                                                                         – Archilochus, 700 BC
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Erika Andersen, How to Decide What Skill to Work on Next, Harvard Business Review, January 2016.
Jim Collins, Good to Great, Harper Business, 2001.
Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Jim Collins, 2005.
Sir Isaiah Berlin, The Fox and the Hedgehog, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1953.