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Training Dichotomy Hampers Competitive Edge - All Canadians Need More HOT Skills

By Steve Bareham |

For decades, North American business leaders have focused on being the first and the best in numerous strategic areas: research, technology, efficiency, right-sizing, marketing, globalization, capital allocation, production, etc. Success has been realized. Excellent tactical performance in these areas has made the North American business sector an undisputed leader and the envy of companies the world over.

Part of the planning process that enabled us to achieve our strategic advantage is attributable to forward-looking business leaders in North America who recognized the necessity of attending to the intellectual readiness of their management teams. Consequently, in thousands of companies in both Canada and the U.S., it has been and is standard practice for all senior managers to pursue ongoing professional and intellectual development to ensure that they remain cutting edge.

This focus on upper-echelon professional development (Pro-D) has seen many millions of North America's senior managers exposed to higher order thinking skills (HOTS) via a potent combination of college and university training, and ongoing career professional development (conferences, professional organization offerings). HOT thinkers become familiar with concepts and terminology such as the following:

  • creativity enhancement
  • change management
  • advanced interpersonal communication
  • how to draw accurate inferences and interpretations that lead to good judgements and decisions
  • understanding and applying quantifiable and valid evaluative and forecasting structures
  • SWOT analysis, environmental scanning
  • research methodologies
  • team building and collaborative structures
  • psychology as it relates to working with and motivating personnel the ability to anticipate cause and effect, action and consequence, and to envision probable outcomes
  • integrating theory and abstraction with practical workplace realities
  • complete system thinking: why and how the whole really can be made greater than the sum of the parts

We Are Not Firing on All of Our Cylinders
North American organizations will quite rightly continue efforts to advance the higher order thinking capabilities of management personnel. What we need to analyze, however, is what we are doing to boost the skills of junior management and of non-management staff; the people referred to, and in a totally non-pejorative way, as the rank-and-file, defined by Webster's as:

"The individuals who constitute the body of an organization, society or nation as distinguished from the leaders."
For rank-and-file employees, there often exists little more than infrequent tinkering in terms of intellectual development. In addition, many millions of North America's rank-and-file workers have had no exposure whatsoever to post secondary environments where high order thinking skills are often addressed. Certainly, many organizations make training opportunities available to non-management personnel, but often these offerings are job specific, and skills-focused, and designed to boost technical "how-to-do" knowledge. Rarely are rank-and-file training sessions designed to build higher order thinking capabilities in the same ways as those that are targeted at senior managers.

The author examined more than 400 Pro-D promotional brochures and websites from across North America and was struck by how curricula content differed for non-management staff compared to the offerings for senior management.


Working the phone
Basic literacy skills
Building sales skills
Coping with job stress
Building positive mental attitude
Setting and reaching goals
Time management
Working within a team
Operating equipment
Technology upgrading

Executive Level

Creative, multidimensional thinking
Socratic questioning
Overcoming barriers to innovation
Evaluation techniques
Influencing and persuading others
Understanding motivation
Productive decisiveness
Strategic planning
Change management

The lists could go on, but hopefully the point is made. The training topics that are offered routinely to non-management staff are not bad things to learn about, but they are not in the same HOT league as those that are made available to senior staff. Typically, the rank-and-file pursues job-specific training that has clear and immediate linkages to productivity and profits, while senior management is allowed, indeed expected, to think more laterally, or "outside the box" as it is commonly known in contemporary jargon. In practice, this means senior management engages in the HOTS while the rank-and-file is more confined to the LOTS (lower order thinking skills).

There are those who continue to think of jobs held by the rank-and-file as uncomplicated, mundane, and straight-forward. In essence, the attitude is that "anyone can do that job." In truth, however, anyone cannot do these jobs. They are increasingly complex and increasingly call for many of the same skills traditionally regarded as managerial.

Trimming Our Sails for a Sea Change
Research suggests that it is time for dramatic change in the way we train people in our society throughout life, Most significant is that higher order thinking skills and critical thinking training must be expanded beyond managers to touch all employees. Organizations that embrace this change will be much better equipped to maintain high-performance workplaces and will be uniquely positioned to respond proactively to accelerating global marketplace demands and competition.

And managers who recognize that human thinking is the key to high-performance workplaces can impact on much more than just productivity and profits; changing the way people think changes more than corporate performance—it changes people's lives.

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