Why critical thinking skills are essential in business

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In 2013, Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations for Google, told The New York Times that the company would no longer consider candidates’ GPAs when hiring – because ‘they’re worthless’. 

A little later, he explained why: “The No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not IQ. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information.”

For Google it was a bold move; the company was previously known for asking candidates for a transcript, GPAs and test scores. But Google is not alone: Bock’s comments reflect Barack Obama’s feelings on the importance of thinking skills in the future of the world economy. The US President recently called on America’s education chiefs 'to develop standards that measure whether students possess twenty-first-century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking.'

Essentially, Bock and Obama agree that addressing a gap in critical thinking skills will be crucial in the transition to an 'ideas economy' in which success will increasingly be determined by how well a person thinks.

Critical thinking in brief

Critical thinking is an umbrella term that covers six key skills: problem-solving, analysis, creative thinking, interpretation, evaluation and reasoning. At the highest level, good critical thinking requires strategic and creative problem-solving; a successful critical thinker is able to ask the right questions, filter bias or useless details and find new solutions where others see only problems and a mass of data. In short, critical thinking is smarter thinking.

Indeed, some of history’s most successful critical thinkers have impacted our perception of the world in ways we never thought possible. Charles Darwin ‒ one of the most original critical thinkers ever ‒ saw new connections and ideas in seemingly mundane situations, and the conclusions that he drew changed the fundamental assumptions we had made about our existence.

The next generation of leaders might not produce another father of evolution. But if they’re going to impact our lives in the way we need them to, they’ll need to start thinking smarter.

How critical thinking skills impact business success

The ability to think critically is what makes us adaptable and capable of tackling new challenges. These skills are increasingly necessary in a rapidly-changing business market and in societies in which there are no longer jobs for life. 

Critical thinking skills help employees plan more efficiently, tackle risks or problems more effectively, and cope with an increased flow of digital information by making quicker, safer, more informed and more creative decisions. Collectively, the six core critical thinking skills make it possible to tackle a whole range of tricky problems.

  • Problem-solving: taking a mass of data and combining apparently unrelated information to make creative, workable solutions.
  • Analysis: breaking arguments down into bite-sized chunks and establishing how well the pieces of an argument fit together.
  • Creative thinking: assessing key problems, hazards and potential answers, then creating coherent new solutions.
  • Interpretation: decoding the meaning and significance of evidence and experiences.
  • Evaluation: assessing the strengths and weaknesses of an argument (including those of others) and dealing with disagreements fairly.
  • Reasoning: spotting gaps in evidence or flaws in logic.

Put simply, having the right skills to think critically means that you are less likely to make expensive or damaging mistakes, and more likely to see flaws in even generally accepted arguments, while also developing creative new solutions to the problems that confront you. It allows self-corrective working and saves time and money, and delivers more impressive results.

For example, better reasoning and interpretation skills might have been useful to US electronics retailer Circuit City in 2007, when it fired 3,400 of its highest-paid employees  – resulting in widespread public outrage – and then attempted to argue that the cuts had no impact on plummeting sales of its products.1 The possibility that customer confidence might be damaged by negative media coverage seemed not to occur to Circuit City management.

But better thinking skills can do far more than avert disasters. At the first Critical Thinking Summit in 2015, Dr Roy van Den Brink-Budgen ‒ co-founder and Director of Studies of the Centre for Critical Thinking in Singapore ‒ pointed out that that critical thinking improves employability, performance in learning, decision-making, behaviour, and the ability to develop flexible employment skills.

Research conducted by Pearson and others takes all this one step further by showing that people who score well on critical thinking assessments are also rated by their supervisors as having good overall job performance, job knowledge and the potential to move up within the organization [1].   

The response from employers

Big businesses are already responding to the shift away from educational point-scoring to assessing transferable skills as part of the hiring process. 

In addition to Google’s shift in 2013, PricewaterhouseCoopers scrapped the requirement for graduate recruits to submit their UCAS scores in 2015, and Ernst & Young abandoned attainment of a 2:1 degree classification as one of their hiring requirements in August of the same year. Maggie Stilwell ‒ Ernst & Young’s managing partner for talent ‒ admitted to the Huffington Post: “Our own internal research of over 400 graduates found that screening students based on academic performance alone was too blunt an approach to recruitment.”

These companies are not alone. In one recent survey, 93% of employers agreed that “a candidate's demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major” [2]. 

None of this means that a degree is a useless qualification, of course. But employers have every reason to no longer trust that a top college education automatically equals smarter thinking. Employers may not care if their staff can’t translate Aristotle, or don’t know when the Civil War came to an end, but they do expect them to be able to to quickly sift information, to dig out useful details from a pile of data, and create new solutions to old problems.

What can we do?

The message is clear: if business want to thrive, and employees want to improve their prospects, better critical thinking skills are essential. The good news is that these skills can be developed and taught.

Schools and universities need to do a better job of integrating critical thinking development into their existing classes. Individuals can make the effort to understand what critical thinking is, and learn how to apply its principles. But employers can do their bit as well. If they’re not happy with the calibre of candidates applying to them, they need to start teaching critical thinking as part of their own learning and development programmes – and apply these skills to the problems that exist in their own industries.

Only then can we cope with what the future will hold.

 

Dr Mike Dash is Chief Research & Development Officer at Macat, a platform proven by the University of Cambridge to improve critical thinking skills. In 2016 Macat will conduct the largest international of critical thinking skills ever undertaken, which aims to highlight both the need for critical thinking and the growing gap between what skills students are entering the workforce with and what employers require. 

References

[1] Critical Thinking Means Business: Learn to Apply and Develop the NEW #1 Workplace Skill (2013). By Judy Chartrand, Ph.D., Heather Ishikawa, MA, & Scott Flander

[2] It takes more than a major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success Hart Research Associates, 2013.

About Mike Dash

Dr Mike Dash

Dr Mike Dash is Chief Research & Development Officer at Macat, a platform proven by the University of Cambridge to improve critical thinking skills. In 2016 Macat will conduct the largest international of critical thinking skills ever undertaken, which aims to highlight both the need for critical thinking and the growing gap between what skills students are entering the workforce with and what employers require.

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