Tackling Wicked Skills Problems — Together

OEB has been bringing sectors together for 30 years to explore digital opportunities for  lifelong learning. In this article Laura Overton examines why it is time for sectors to work smarter together to tackle the wicked problems we share.

Skills have been on the OEB agenda for the last 30 years but the momentum for the skills agenda has reached a peak over the last few years. When they are not talking about AI, policy makers, academics, L&D leaders, teachers, and edtech entrepreneurs are all talking about skill! How to build them, buy them, borrow them, upgrade them, revisit, enhance and reimagine them. The shelf life of skills, their currency and redundancy and who has responsibility for them is being debated around the globe.

AI has placed a brighter spotlight on the skills that humans will need in the future – no wonder skills are the talk of the town (and the boardroom).

That said, the common word might be skills, but the issue is framed differently for different audiences – and, dependent on our area of specialty and specialist knowledge we all have our own perspectives on what the challenge looks like and how to address it.

Policy makers are tackling issues of inclusion and benefits to community and society, business leaders are looking at competitive advantage and business survival, academics are exploring the evidence, technologists are diving into how AI and robots can help. Meanwhile, educators across all the sectors are trying to work out ways to keep up!

The trouble is that navigating the global skills landscape is difficult, let alone cultivating it. The challenge isn’t just complicated – it’s complex. The issues of policy, environment, opportunity are entangled with each other.

In the workplace alone, debate rages about who is responsible for creating opportunity for new knowledge sharing, practice, testing and reflection. It is even more complex when local providers and institutions, shifting government policies and global uncertainties all start to kick in. Solving a challenge in any one of these areas could kick start an unknown problem in another.

I’d argue that the ‘skills issue’ represents all the elements of a wicked problem.

This means issues around skills in business and society can’t just be addressed by the application of traditional disciplines. The learning designers might miss something on policy and environment The business and policy makers might insight from learning designers. All of us in danger of missing the updated and relevant perspectives of the graduate, the project manager, the school leaver, apprentice, graphics designer or doctor who are working out how to work out a living in a continually changing world.

An Experiment

In my last article for OEB, I explored the benefits of getting out of our lanes of speciality to imaginatively explore complex challenges by considering different perspectives.

This can be tough to do when we are wedded to our disciplines, our language and our approach to solving problems. But OEB provides a unique opportunity for different sectors to come together in the same place. So Last November I asked Gila Kurtz, Dean of The Faculty of Instructional Design at HIT, to get involved in an experiment with me!

I was super curious to know what would happen if we brought different sectors together to look at one element of the shared skills challenge through the lens of each other. I ran the idea by some others but got a little push back that included ‘That won’t work, the academics don’t talk to practitioners’ or ‘ Practitioners don’t really have anything in common with policy makers’ ‘Trust me, people don’t want to get out of their own comfort zone.’

But, having co-ordinated work across sectors in my previous research life I knew diverse conversations across the silos was not only possible but also a potential source for new, fresh breakthrough ideas.

Working with differences

My background is in workplace learning, and I guess that I would define my own ‘lane’ as being L&D – focussing on the needs of those at work and in the workplace with a specific emphasis on delivering business impact. As a professor, Gila was firmly entrenched in the practical academy, conducting research for the benefit of both the academic and the professional community in the industry. She graciously agreed to work with me on a session at OEB where we invited different sectors to share their perspectives on a common issue and collaborate to generate ideas.

We designed the session by leaning into some of the principles arising from academic thinking into transdisciplinary inquiry. This is where different disciplines and walks of life collaborate together to explore complex issues with an open mind and open dialogue with equal weighting to provide a more comprehensive understanding of a problem in order be in a better position to develop practical solutions.

True collaboration across disciplines and sectors is often difficult when everyone thinks they are either right or unique! So, we borrowed some principles for the session from those who had successfully conducted significant transdisciplinary enquiries in other areas. These were shared with the delegates on the day.

Principles for Collaborative Exploration

The following principles created the framework for our conversations:

  • we recognised that we share a common challenge.
  • We acknowledge domain expertise in the room.
  • We are here to learn with others (not persuading or convincing others)
  • We are open minded – recognising diverse perspectives have the potential to create new lenses on an issue.
  • We agree to leave our own comfort zone to join others in theirs
  • We will create safe spaces for each other to share.

The common challenge that we chose to explore was ‘How can we cultivate curiosity, creativity and critical thinking needed for the modern workforce’ and for half of the session, the delegates divided into small groups with individuals with people they would not normally work with. L&D designers teamed up with academics, policy makers with L&D designers, teachers with leaders in edtech. They shared their own local challenges linked to the question and then created space to listen and learn from each other and to use their collective imagination to surface ideas to help each other.

Over 60 ideas were generated in our little experiment that were meaningful to those in the room (happy to share more in another article) But for me, the powerful learning came from the reflection on the process of working on an equal footing with others who are different from ourselves. In that short space of time the 70 people shared what they had taken away from the experience. Here is just some of the feedback:

When Laura first shared her concept of a transdisciplinary spirit, e.g., understanding her world – L&D industry – from my academic perspective, I was curious how hard it would be for me to look at different views & exchange of strategies poised to shape the workforce of tomorrow. But I think we made it!

I was curious about how the experiment would develop and what its outcomes will be. I was thrilled to see that the audience followed us to a rich and thought-provoking discussion.

 Even in the preparation phase, and later in the session I discovered that there is actually little difference between us in terms of defining the final destination. The differences between us are more technical, like in the way we carry out our research and maintain our research discourse.

Moving forward, I would love to hear more diverse and different voices, both from academy & industry especially in this historic crossroads with the game-changing, AI revolution.

Thoughts from Gila

For me I have found that I have operated using these principles of cross sector exploration for most of my career.

Connecting and collaborating with those whose domain knowledge is different to mine release’s energy, creativity and breakthrough insights on difficult issues.

The principles we shared on the day created a framework to explore surface fresh insights. They work equally as well major research projects.

However, just working with Gila to prepare the session provided the two of us with as many new insights as conducting session itself as we learned to explore the challenge through each other’s eyes – see box out.

This year’s theme for OEB is ‘The learning futures we chose’ and for me, choosing to explore complex issues though the lenses of others will allow us all to tackle the wicked problems ahead of us – together.

You can contact Laura and Gila via LinkedIn:

Laura: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lauraoverton

Gila: https://www.linkedin.com/in/prof-gila-kurtz-ph-d-35619811/

Written for OEB Global 2024 by Laura Overton and Gila Kurtz.

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