Competing with competencies: Developing future-proof Sri Lankans | Sunday Observer

Competing with competencies: Developing future-proof Sri Lankans

Competencies are required to compete in an increasingly competitive global environment. Sri Lanka slipped from 71st place to 85th on the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) last year.

This is a dismal picture, as Sri Lanka in 2012 was at 52, in 2015 at 68 and in 2016 at 71. Obviously, many fingers will be pointed at policy makers for their actions and inactions. My intention is not to engage in a detailed analysis of the reasons but to reflect on what we can possibly do together as a nation. Today’s column focuses on future competencies for Sri Lankans that will ensure confidence in competing in local, regional and global spheres, in the midst of the pandemic.


The future belongs to those who create it. In fact, we Sri Lankans are doing it on multiple fronts thanks to some enthusiastic professionals.

The adequacy of political patronage for such initiatives is questionable. As it is often said, we are experiencing a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world with the pandemic. What we need to have is VUCA 2.0 with vision, understanding, confidence and agility. We see many political rumblings with multiple signals, retarding the growth focus. Our neighbouring nations such as Bangladesh are much focused on their development plans and steadfast in their growth momentum. Will they beat us on the economic front maintaining a higher growth rate to become a vibrant economy in South Asia, the way they beat us in cricket? Loads of food for thought, I believe.

Future competencies

Competencies are the measurable or observable knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviour critical to successful job performance. Choosing the right set of competencies is core for consistent performance expected by an employer. Future competencies can be easily labelled as ABCDE. Let’s see what they are.

A: Analytical thinking

Irrespective of whether our background is science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) or not, the future demands us to be analytical. With the massive inflow of information, selecting, prioritising, focusing and deciding are important for speedy action. If we do not become smart in this terrain, ‘analysis paralysis’ could take place. It further invites us to work systematically and logically to resolve problems, identify cause and anticipate unexpected results.

 It also involves managing issues by drawing on our own experience and knowledge and on other resources as necessary.

Undertaking  complex tasks and breaking them down into manageable parts in a systematic way, thinking  of multiple possible causes and anticipating consequences of situations, thinking of possible alternatives for a situation, recognising and reconciling data discrepancies, identifying  information needed to effectively solve problems, weighing the pros and cons of options and alternatives and systematically change variables to determine effects on the whole are other associated activities.

At a time when there is a conscious effort to shift GCE (AL) students from arts stream to STEM areas, the emphasis on analytical skills is very relevant. Sharpness of reasoning than getting overly emotional in decision making is what is acutely needed on many social fronts.

B: Business savviness

Having a holistic understanding about the world of business is essential for any manager to perform and progress. The future demands us to move beyond our functional silos encompassing wider perspectives. Narrow specialty should pave the way for multi-skilling, perhaps retaining some specialty.

If I take an HR executive as an example, does he/she know business realities such as market conditions, competitor activities, opportunities and threats out there and key people needs? I still recall, when I interviewed CEOs of South Asian countries, as a part of my doctoral research, a significant majority of them said, ”My HR person knows HR, but he/she does not know business.” Partnering with the core business processes in getting connected to business related decision making is key for a collective contribution towards corporate success. As a nation are we there? is a big question. In the public and private sectors alike, what we sadly see missing is the much needed ‘holistic thinking’. How people pursue their personal agendas with a narrow ulterior perspective with gross ignorance or glaring inconsistency is very pathetic to observe.  

C: Creative mindset

Creative thinking is a mental activity, which produces new ideas or new insights. It does this by de-patterning or re-patterning thoughts. In fact, our mind is the sum total of our memories, images, desires, expectations, beliefs, feelings and other such mental processes. Thinking is, therefore, a sequence of images and events, which constitutes our mind.

Creativity involves breaking patterns and thinking out of the box. A mind pattern based on traditional, or stale perceptions should give rise to a fresh wave of creative thinking. The result is the generation of new ideas.

Despite the proliferation of automation, robotics and other vistas with Artificial Intelligence (AI), human creativity will be much in demand in the continuing era of imagination. Whether we can make a conscious effort to foster creativity among schoolchildren, leading to imagination and innovation is the question. 

D: Digital diligence

Technology has always been an enhancer of our work. From adding machines to the advanced computer this has been the case. Such extensive applications are broadly categorised as digital transformations. When integration of digital devices to our daily lives takes place at an increasingly rapid pace, it is the survival of the fittest in being digitally diligent.

In simple terms, it is about the smartness one demonstrates in embracing the change with regards to changing technology. It was  the Austrian-American economist  Joseph  Schumpeter, who first spoke  of a  “gale  of creative  destruction” to sustain economic growth. We can see a parallel to that in the now popular use of the term ‘disruption’.

Prof. Clayton Christensen of  Harvard Business School, widely regarded as the  concept initiator  of disruption,  says that a disruption displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile. While being disruptive on the one hand, it  is creative on the other.

“We are witnessing profound shifts across all industries, marked by the emergence of new business models, the disruption of incumbents and the reshaping of production, consumption, transportation and delivery systems,” states Klaus Schwab, in his most recent book, ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. 

Are we reaping the benefits of our digital initiatives? Perhaps to some extent. Creation of the Information and Communication Agency (ICTA) and now a fully-fledged ministry for digital infrastructure appear as constructive steps. Being ahead in South Asia with 4.5 G mobile communication technology is another sign to say that we have positive trends to encourage  society to be more digitally diligent. 

E: Emotional maturity

To harmonise the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) we need to foster Emotional Intelligence (EI). What is required is AI-EI synergy. As Daniel Goleman advocates, EI is a capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and to manage emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships. Despite many subsequent presentations and interpretations, I still prefer the five key components of EI advocated by Goleman. They are self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, empathy and effective relationships.

Empathy is the key. One needs to demonstrate empathy to ensure lasting relationships and sustainable partnerships. We need to make a conscious effort to move from taking one-sided emotionally-laden erratic decisions to a more mature platform. Sri Lankans have a long way to go in this respect.

ABCDE competencies vs connections

I see a Human Resource issue at the macro level baffling national leaders. It is essential to pick the right person for  the right position, especially with regard to the  key ones from a national perspective. We see some displeasure expressed by a section of the public through social media about certain appointments. It is pertinent to mention what David Oglivy, the advertising tycoon, had to say with respect to hiring: “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs, but if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we will become a company of giants.” The hiring process has to be professionally designed and executed to hire people with potential.


Leaders should be performers in practising what they preach. They must  inspire, influence and initiate in a manner to ignite result-oriented action. In contrast, laggards are passengers. They hamper  progress by being lazy and lethargic. Indecisiveness resulting in inaction is often common in their approach.

Do we see more leaders or laggards? The answer lies in the results they achieve. It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Living with leaders and laggards leaves us with fewer choices for achievement. Leaders have to be far more effective to overcome the ineffectiveness of laggards.

Way forward

“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today,” so said Abraham Lincoln. We need to embrace competencies needed for the future in the present itself. We need to train not only the current managers but also the emerging leaders in becoming future-proof.

ABCDE is one clear way of awakening to the needed competencies and to take key strategic initiatives accordingly.  It reminds me what I learnt from my alma mater: ‘Disce aut Discede’ in Latin meaning ‘Learn or Depart’. I think we need to interpret it in the contemporary private and public domain as ‘Perform or Depart’.