Jul 152014

In research and in economic innovation, great insight and great value are frequently created by individuals with stocks of knowledge in two or more domains and by teams of people where the individuals might be experts in one domain but have the facility to grasp enough of another domain to connect the dots. In universities across the globe, more and more research is being done by multidisciplinary teams. While deep expertise in one domain is needed to perform well on these teams, facility with — if not some significant expertise in — another domain is also needed. Tomorrow’s problems and the innovation needed to solve them are likely to require multiple disciplines. One person with multiple domains of knowledge becomes increasingly valuable. In the area of healthcare informatics, the top practitioners in this field often have a medical degree (an MD) and one or more degrees in a related field (e.g., PhD in computer science). Why? Because this person must coordinate teams that straddle two complex and technical worlds. One of the revolutions occurring underneath our feet involves nanotechnology. In this area, knowledge of and experience with modeling molecules using a very high-performance computer array are critical. This skill set frequently combines difficult knowledge of and skill in computer science, physics, chemistry, and biology within one person. Moreover, the insights and innovation that come from this kind of research can affect many industries, including pharmacology, medicine, and materials manufacturing (see “How IBM Plans to Kill the Staph Superbug“). I can summarize the state of affairs as follows:

  1. We don’t know well enough the types of jobs students of today will have in the future.
  2. We don’t know what kinds of specific knowledge they may need to possess for these yet-unknown jobs.
  3. Good jobs are those that require highly creative, intellectual, or leadership skills. Any job activities that can get automated are getting automated. Middle-skill jobs are vanishing.
  4. Today’s and tomorrow’s problems are increasingly multidisciplinary, requiring longer learning times to accumulate knowledge in two or more disciplines.
  5. Today’s youth have minds that are even better than the minds of youths in prior generations.
  6. Today’s young workers are not only expected to change jobs more frequently than workers in the past, but they are also expected to change their careers more frequently.

Artes Liberales

Exactly what should our young people learn to be ready for this kind of future? The traditional liberal arts degree will be coming back in full force as an important postsecondary education degree. Rather than overspecialize at the young adult age, workers of tomorrow need a renewed commitment to what has been thrown aside. Young workers will need a stronger base of general-purpose knowledge and, more importantly, a stronger capacity for self-reflection, both of which are cultivated in the liberal arts more so than in the applied sciences. From this strong foundation, these learners can spring into specialized work, education, and long-term career success (see “It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success,” “New Report Documents That Liberal Arts Disciplines Prepare Graduates for Long-Term Professional Success,” and “Is There a Place for Liberal Arts in Business?” ).

The liberal arts degree I have in mind won’t necessarily be just like the old one. Tomorrow’s workers will need the ability to learn quickly across a range of disciplines and master the higher levels of abstract thought that underpin so many disciplines. While a good liberal arts education does contain a lot of content, now more than ever it needs to impart to the student a particular set of content-independent skills. It is these skills that will allow the person to more easily acquire new expertise down the road. They include:

  • Persistence skills. How do I improve my ability to persist? How do I grow accustomed to not getting it right away? How do I manage my schedule and life planning to continue something over the long haul?

  • Metacognitive skills. How do I learn? How do I manage my attention? How do I manage my own motivation? What are good learning strategies for me? When do I know that my behaviors are not working? Why do I learn one subject better than another?

  • Critical thinking. How do I decompose a problem? How do I skeptically inquire? How do I relate what appear to be two or more totally different things? How do I validate information? How do I understand cause and effect? How do I reframe problems? How do I use abstraction to make problems generic? How do I flip assumptions or use extreme examples to understand something? How do I draw warranted conclusions from data?

  • Creative skills. How do I relate things with metaphor? How do I synthesize several things (after I have taken them apart)? How do I balance conflicting outcomes within the work I am producing? How do I combine old things in new ways?

  • Emotional self-reflection. How do I detect my own emotional state? When do I become aware that I am reasoning irrationally? How do I control my emotions? How do I control my environment to help manage my emotions?

  • Broad and more fundamental, theoretical knowledge. How will I achieve a basic, but reasonably solid, grasp of a few things upon which the current world of innovation and economic growth will depend? These include how molecules work (think nanotechnology, pharmacology, genetics); how atoms and things inside atoms work (think quantum mechanics, materials engineering, fiber optics); how neurons work (think psychology, learning, and devices that can read parts of our minds); how collections of words work (think speech recognition, text mining, Big Data analytics); and how persuasion works (think sales, advocacy, entrepreneurialism).

How do you think a young worker with these metacognitive skills and more fundamental science and humanities knowledge would fare in the job market? I contend that he or she would have the capacity to learn whatever skills we old folks complain are disappearing from the planet, including but not limited to project management, communication, writing, math, and teamwork skills. I suspect that this kind of person probably could more easily launch into two or more disciplines than others who do not have these skills. I also will suggest that this kind of person, over his or her lifetime, will more likely become a master of multiple disciplines. I think the 21st century will see the return of the polymath, the agile learner who persistently and quickly masters new disciplines. Move over, geeks. Polymaths are going to rule the world.


Vince Kellen, Ph.D.

Vince Kellen, Ph.D. is a Senior Consultant with Cutter's Business Technology & Digital Transformation Strategies and Data Analytics and Digital Technologies practices. Dr. Kellen's 25+ years of experience involves a rare combination of IT operations management, strategic consulting, and entrepreneurialism. He is currently CIO at the University of Kentucky, one of the top public research institutions and academic medical centers in the US.


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