Computational thinking: a key skill in the 21st century
In a world increasingly dominated by automation we need to equip employees with skills that complement computer technology and learn to work in partnership with robots.
In the decade since computational thinking (CT) was first formulated by then Carnegie-Mellon Professor Jeannette Wing, it has been emerging as a really powerful universal problem solving technique, in particular for helping us all to work better with automation technologies.
Hence Stephen Wolfram, inventor of the plain English Wolfram programming language, and an advocate of early years computer science, defines the approach as being”about formulating things with enough clarity, and in a systematic enough way, that one can tell a computer how to do them”.
In other words, once you have "thought computationally" and recast your problem in the right way, programming then becomes the next step - telling the computer what to do in order to solve it.
The emergence of CT has accompanied the rise of AI (Artificial Intelligence), which could make 65% of current workplace skills irrelevant in five years.
What seems certain is that we are on the cusp of a new automation age, and as the robots move into our workplaces, our jobs have to adapt and the skill sets remain relevant. Everybody will need to have abilities that complement digital technology.
So could CT be the way to bridge that gap between hard and soft skills? Yes, because not everybody will be in need of hard programming proficiency.
Everybody will need to have abilities that complement digital technology.
This could mean skills associated with the cloud, analytics, mobility, security, IoT and blockchain. There is also growing consensus that we have to introduce a computational/programming-like approach into all of our approaches to work.
After all, topping the list of the World Economic Forum’s recent list of essential skills necessary for thriving during the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the skill of ‘complex problem solving.’
CT is basically the approach we take when we consider how a computer can help us to solve complex problems – and in particular for it then to shape what the person involved in the business process does.
Like preparing a relevant data set for that task, dividing a problem in useful chunks resolvable for a computer, detecting configurations where automation and parallelisation can be introduced, designing digitally and so on.
CT is basically the approach we take when we consider how a computer can help us to solve complex problems.
What does this look like in practice? Let’s say you’ve agreed to meet your friends somewhere none of you have ever been before. You would plan your route before you step out of your house.
You might consider the routes available and which route is ‘best’ – this might be the route that is the shortest, the quickest, or the one which goes past your favourite shop on the way.
You'd then follow the step-by-step directions to get there. In this case, the planning part is CT, and following the directions is like programming.
Leading the way
Being able to think through a problem in a similar, logical manner and come up with a solution in the digital world is what matters, and as our professional lives become increasingly automated, CT related skills will grow in importance.
At the September ‘Future Skills’ event at the Swiss Embassy in London, Professor Dillenbourg from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), a research institute and university in Lausanne, Switzerland, said CT is the essential gateway skill we’re all going to have to learn, sooner or later.
Google is pushing hard for the democratisation of CT in education.
Forward-thinking policymakers are putting this digital extension to traditional education on the horizon. The US, for instance, is among the early adopters of CT, with its National Research Council and US tech university Carnegie-Mellon has its Microsoft-sponsored Center for Computational Thinking, while the Open University in the UK is offering dedicated CT lessons.
Globally, Google is pushing hard for the democratisation of CT in education from early years to age 12 globally, providing a variety of teaching material to educators.
What should HR leaders do?
So, what should the world of business be doing about this huge momentous shift? How do firms embrace CT to help their staff? What can we do to help employees successfully transition and acquire these new skills?
First, it’s absolutely key that you insist employees take time out for education and establish continuous learning programmes.
To ensure success, you also need to get away from the ‘top-down’ approach of old in favour of a learner-centric model and a virtual learning environment in which all lessons and material are digital and available 24/7 and increasingly via mobileand in short bursts.
It’s absolutely key that you insist employees take time out for education and establish continuous learning programmes.
In addition, incorporating gamification and collaboration features will activate the joy of competition and the desire for socialisation and exchange and increase engagement.
Employees are also time poor and required to face rapid changes in their industries and jobs. Asking them questions before any teaching takes place (the flipped pedagogy model) pinpoints their level and means they’ll be offered the lessons they need.
However you do it, HR leaders need to start thinking today about how to use CT to help your staff. Embracing this mindset will prepare us to meet anything the digital world and our future robot overlords can throw at us.
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Jean-Marc Tassetto is co-founder of Coorpacademy and he leads now its international development. A former CEO of Google France and SFR Grand Public, Jean-Marc left behind world-leading corporations to pursue his entrepreneurial ambitions in a sector he has a real passion for: training to improve employability and businesses’...