OECD Observer
Curious? You’d better be

Life skills and a passion for learning are the key to the global knowledge economy. Thriving in this environment demands several qualities. 

The February 1950 issue of Popular Mechanics predicted that by now, we would all be eating food made from sawdust, cleaning the interiors of our totally waterproof homes with a garden hose, and controlling the weather. The writer got it wrong. But in general, if the future is difficult to see clearly, we often can discern its outlines. This is particularly true when we observe global market trends to gauge what skills will prove instrumental in the decades ahead. In the first editions of the OECD Observer back in 1962, experts predicted the need to skill up for an increasingly technological world. Such foresight allows educators, along with their partners in business, government and civil society, to work together to prepare future talent for careers that are successful and significant.

As we map the territory ahead, institutions, like individuals, will have to be flexible enough to respond quickly to market changes, adapting their policies, curricula and resources to current and emerging circumstances. This is not easy, since institutions are notoriously slow to change. What we learn, and why we learn it, reflect our core values as a society. It’s our responsibility to shape the world we want, even as we react to market changes. This view is implicit in Peter Drucker’s remark: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” We can acquire new skills relatively easily, but acquiring the right skills, and then putting them into practice, is more difficult. Skills gained without wisdom offer no guarantee of success—in fact, they may produce the opposite effect. Yes, wisdom is a notoriously opaque term. What I mean by it is the practice of cultivating self-knowledge, humility and a long-term perspective rooted in enduring ethical values. The goal of this mindfulness– which is itself a skill–is action that “puts people first” and results in a society that is more harmonious and more prosperous. The market is our greatest engine for achieving this outcome on a large scale, which is why the skills we choose to develop for this matter so much.

If we conceive of skills as a pyramid, as my INSEAD colleagues Bruno Lanvin and Nils Fonstad have done in their research, we see that its foundation is literacy and basic abilities, such as maths, science and IT literacy. Above that come job-specific occupational skills. Then, at the top of the pyramid we find global knowledge economy skills, such as those needed to manage virtual and multicultural teams. All are important and linked, although here my focus is on the pyramid’s apex.

We are witnessing a move away from traditional capitalism toward greater “entrepreneurialism” in many parts of the world. Globalisation and technological advances have played a big part in this shift, and these forces will keep operating at breakneck speed, challenging us to learn and re-learn if we are to remain valuable contributors. Given the complexity of the global marketplace—especially the knowledge economy and its IT tools— human capital development will drive this century’s progress as steam power propelled the Industrial Revolution. To thrive in this environment, several qualities are required.

First, there’s a need for interdisciplinary acumen. The ability to synthesise and integrate disparate information, working alongside colleagues from different academic backgrounds, will be key. It will be necessary to complement our own expertise with a working familiarity of related or adjacent disciplines. Consider the Internet, which began as an engineering feat, but became what it is now through the contributions of many people, from linguists to neuroscientists. In fact, digital technology is a good example of why it is important for our knowledge to span disciplines: besides managing people well, leaders must manage technology effectively, since these tools will remain at the heart of organisational design, communication, human capital and decision-making.

Cultural diversity is another factor. A global market demands people who can blend and mix, chameleon-like, across many cultures and borders. For the best results managers must understand the perspectives of multiple stakeholders, while harnessing diverse insights from their teams. Schools, particularly business schools can increase their value by promoting diversity skills. At INSEAD, global perspective and cultural diversity have formed the core of our research and teaching for more than 50 years has led us to branch out to develop fully-fledged campuses in Singapore and Abu Dhabi, in addition to the original campus in Fontainebleau near Paris. These values have underpinned our fully-fledged campuses in Singapore and Abu Dhabi, as well as Fontainebleau/Paris, and have supported our goal of bringing together diverse people and ideas to transform organisations.

Then there is relentless curiosity. In a world continuously reinventing itself, only the curious will thrive. People with a passion for lifelong learning will adapt to new circumstances and drive groundbreaking value creation. In his research on innovation and entrepreneurship, INSEAD Professor Hal Gregersen has identified five core skills needed for what he calls “disruptive” discovery: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting and networking. He found that the most inventive people connect different ideas and knowledge domains, engage with others to get new insights, and keep asking questions that sharpen and test their own ideas. The challenge for institutions is to create an appetite for this perpetual curiosity, and the resources to support it. INSEAD does this in many ways, including by engaging with the private and public sectors. These relationships bring leaders onto our campuses and into our programmes, and provide insights to keep our courses timely and relevant. This practice, in turn, allows us to impart global leadership skills and produce graduates that can make significant contributions.

Finally, humility and respect—for others, society and the planet. For those seeking to create a positive impact an authentic ethical intelligence will be as integral as analytical and emotional intelligence.

Taken together, all these qualities create a holistic mindset that melds analysis and wisdom. Skills are a prerequisite for good jobs that sustain the economy. Yet this discussion cannot ignore other factors. Demographic shifts, especially in Europe and Japan, are resulting in labour challenges as fewer younger workers are replacing those retiring from the workforce. Those pensioners are living longer—a credit to medical and social innovation—but this presents an economic challenge that needs careful policy responses. Some proposals, such as raising the retirement age, have angered people who consider them unfair. This situation highlights the need for a concerted institutional effort to support lifelong learning, even as individuals understand their own responsibility in pursuing skills to fuel longer careers. The OECD, like INSEAD, is leading the enquiry into these issues. By addressing them and doing our best to anticipate the broad lines of the future, we can minimise the “skills gap”, increase human potential, and strengthen our economic and social foundations.


Kaempffert, W. (1950), “In the Next Fifty Years”, Popular Mechanics, Hearst Magazines, Harlan, Iowa.

Fonstad, N.O, and B. Lanvin (2010), “Economic Tigers: Sustaining the Roar”, INSEAD eLab Skills Report.

Gregersen, H., J. Dyer and C. M. Christensen (2011), The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, Harvard Business Review Press, Harvard.


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©OECD Observer No 290-291, Q1-Q2 2012