Competing with competencies: Developing future-proof Sri Lankans | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

Competing with competencies: Developing future-proof Sri Lankans

27 September, 2020

Competencies are required in an increasingly competitive global environment. Sri Lanka occupied 84th place on the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) last year. This shows 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 policymakers for their action and inaction. My intention is not to engage in a detailed analysis on 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.


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 increasingly moving towards a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic. We see many political rumblings with multiple signals, retarding growth focus. Our neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh are much focused in their development plans and steadfast in their growth momentum.

Will they beat us on the economic front by 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. It was amazingly consistent at the deliberations in three international conferences last year, in Pune and Ahmadabad in India and Nadi in Fiji, which I participated in, with regards to comprehending competency needs.

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 employee. What was echoed as future competencies can be easily labeled 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 key for speedy action. If we do not become smart in this terrain, what possibly could happen will be “analysis paralysis”.

It further invites us to work systematically and logically to resolve problems, identify causation and anticipate unexpected results. It also involves managing issues by drawing on own experience and knowledge and calls on other resources as necessary.

Undertaking complex tasks and breaking them down into manageable parts in a systematic way, thinking 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 changes 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 the 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 required at 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 in becoming broader in our perspectives 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 or she know the business realities such as market conditions, competitor activities, opportunities and threats out there and the key people needs accordingly?

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 or 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 the 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 new wave of creative thinking. The result is the generation of new ideas. Warren Bennis described creativity as a dimension of a “new paradigm” for managers.

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 make a conscious effort to foster creativity among the school children, leading to imagination and innovation is a question mark.

D: Digital diligence

Technology has always been an enhancer of our work. From adding machines to the advanced computer this was the case. Such extensive applications are broadly categorised as digital transformations. When integration of digital devices to our daily lives happens 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 Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian-American economist 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, said that a disruption displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile. Whilst being disruptive on one hand, it is creative on the other hand.

“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,” says 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 information and Communication Agency (ICTA) and recent revitalisation of it 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 the 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 needed is AI-EI synergy in being high tech and high touch.

As Daniel Goleman advocates, EI is a capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing 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.

If I am to single out, empathy is the key. To ensure lasting relationships and sustainable partnerships, one needs to demonstrate empathy. 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. How to pick the right person for the right position, especially with regards to the key ones from a national perspective.

We have seen bouquets and brickbatsby a section of the public through social media about certain recent 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 inspire, influence and initiate in such a manner to ignite result-oriented action. In contrast, laggards are passengers. They hamper the 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 a less number of 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 required 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”. Time is ripe for us to relentlessly strive to reap a rich harvest.