Children in Denmark spend an hour each week learning how to be better people. They are taught why bullying is wrong, how to solve disputes, why it’s important to be on time, what it means to be a good friend and colleague. Everyone talks. Everyone listens. They take these classes every year, from age 6 to 16, as part of the nationwide curriculum.
It might seem improbable that teaching empathy would have anything to do with corporate success in a competitive and fast-changing global marketplace, but that is one conclusion reached by seasoned executives and an abundance of research, including the latest Global Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), host of the annual meeting of global business leaders in Davos, Switzerland.
Thanks in part to an educational system that turns out reflective and responsive human beings, Denmark, a nation of fewer than six million people, ranks 12th out of 138 countries in the WEF’s latest Global Competitiveness Report.
Joining Denmark in the WEF’s top 15 this year were more predictable economic powerhouses, including the U.S. (third place) and Germany (fifth). Countries’ places in the WEF’s competitiveness rankings depend on a variety of factors, including macroeconomics, infrastructure, market size, and labor efficiencies, as well as the current top growth-drivers, business sophistication and technological innovation. But no fewer than seven of the top 12 nations have populations of fewer than 10 million people. Each boasts top schools with imaginative curriculums and world-class social services which, in many ways, express the empathy of those nations.
Taken together, the trend of the WEF’s ratings over the past decade suggests that the competitiveness of nations relies increasingly on the flexibility, ingenuity, and humanity of their workforces and the corporations that cultivate them.
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“Even with all the new technology, people skills are actually more important now,” Bank of America Chief Executive Officer Brian Moynihan said in a recent interview. “Whether it’s providing day-to-day services in our bank branches or managing our data analytics, it’s all about people.”
More than ever, what were once known as “soft skills” have become core to economic growth, which implies the need for corporate cultures and values that align with productive, resilient, imaginative people who can be proud of the work they do. In other words, it means becoming a good corporate citizen, whose virtues also bolster the bottom line.
The defining question for a business’s success, as Moynihan put it, is, “Can we hire, retain, and develop the top talent. And, frankly, will they be happy working here?”
The co-chair of this year’s meeting at Davos, Moynihan has found that younger employees are driven by more than financial and personal satisfactions: “They’re also here to do things that make society better. It’s critical for us to recognize that demand and then to shape the company around it.”
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The Challenge for Education
A corporation that aligns itself with the values and ambitions of its employees puts them at the heart of its success, which means they need to be good at their jobs—and also at seeing beyond the immediate task to find an insight hiding deep in statistics, or thinking across and outside categories to find an unexpected solution.
The nations scoring first and second in the WEF’s competitiveness rankings for 2016 were Switzerland and Singapore, both of which have school systems that emphasize the kinds of skill taught to the children of Denmark. Not incidentally, both nations also excel in industries with rapidly advancing technology that especially prize creative, collaborative thinking and promise high job growth.
Countries that wish to compete with them need a new vision for education, says Dr. R.A. Farrokhnia, a professor at Columbia University’s business and engineering schools who runs a program blending skill in finance, engineering, design, and storytelling. In kindergartens and in universities, he says, what is needed is what he calls a “more integrated education.”
Too many schools still emphasize “testing to see whether you’ve learned things or not,” he says—in a world that relies less and less on memorized fact. “Quantifiable jobs are the easiest to outsource or automate. With a financial statement, you can train someone to do this in a fairly autonomous way. It’s fairly mechanical. But if I ask you what to do with that analysis, that’s not something you can automate. You have to combine a lot of human abilities into one.”
The most competitive countries and companies already place great value on such intellectual agility. According to a recent survey of 291 U.S. hiring managers, creativity, critical thinking, and the social skill required to work well in teams were the top three criteria for job candidates today. And as industries become increasingly automated—the number of industrial robots used globally is roughly doubling every five years, from 69,000 in 2002 to 229,000 in 2014, to a projected 400,000 by 2018, according to the WEF—the need and market will grow for the people whose intelligence, interpersonal skills, and social conscience form the basis for strong corporate and national-economic growth.
That is why, at this year’s Davos, the best minds in business will be talking not only about infrastructure development and trade policy but also about diversity, social responsibility, sustainability, and the optimal characteristics of the 21st-century employee.
As automation, digitalization, and artificial intelligence assume an increasing part of the global workload, the success of companies and employees will depend on the skills that are intrinsically and uniquely human: intuition, out-of-the-box thinking, creative analysis, a spirit of cooperation. “Soft skills are the ones that are harder to teach and harder to test on,” says Dr. Farrokhnia. “But for a nation to survive in this new reality, those are the skills that can’t be put aside.”