The Triple-Strength Worker

What skills does the modern worker need to succeed and lead?


At the HBS Digital Initiative we spend quite a bit of time exploring how technology and workers come together to achieve results for organizations. Rapidly evolving work environments and technological advancement have changed what makes contributors in an organization valuable at all level. What is needed beyond excellent communication, interpersonal skills, and job specific knowledge? Today’s tech driven economy demands minimum credible knowledge across three areas of expertise.

Modern workers must possess abilities in computing, applied math, and at least one domain of expertise. Expertise is all about knowledge and experience in a subject. Having a unique perspective adds dimension to interdisciplinary teams. It is the source of passion leveraged to make a difference in the world and keep you coming back to work each day.

Computing skills are necessary as ubiquitous data has made self-sufficiency a requirement for most workers. Those who can collect, store, analyze, and interpret information for themselves are of higher value than those who cannot. Be it collecting data via software tools, manipulating the information, or setting up cloud-based compute power and storage to accomplish these goals, computing know-how is essential.

Applied math skills have become a requirement as organizations continue looking for answers in large collections of information. In extremely large datasets, can you determine what info should be left out of calculations? Which are the best methods to look for patterns, what constitutes a pattern, and is it possible to iterate potential solutions quickly by writing your own code?

Many organizations today are paying three people across IT, business intelligence, and specialized groups to perform what should be the work of one person. Domain expertise allows workers more than personal passion and the employer more than expertise. Coupled with computing and math skills, we get increased efficiency. Identifying bad data, meaningless outliers, and knowing which lead to follow next are the realm of someone who knows what the data mean. Whether the info is environmental, financial, automotive, cosmological, fashion oriented, or anything else, someone who knows what they are looking at can readily explore new directions and is of great value to an organization.

As these employees mature in their career they can shift to spending more time in their domain of expertise. Their experience and know-how in computing and math will allow them to better communicate and collaborate with workers spending their time deep in the data. Some experts will decide their area of expertise should be computing or applied math, as we also need to advance these fields. A common understanding of basic computing and applied math across all workers will empower organizations to innovate and succeed.

There exists today a gap between training and these needs in the workplace. From computerized factory floors to financial modeling, the minimum credible knowledge needed to compete must be woven together in pieces by the life-long learner. Elementary, secondary, higher-ed, continuing education, and job training offer the skills, but in pieces. It is rare to find a program providing enough rigor in computing, applied math, and specific domains of expertise that is configured for the student to easily encounter all three sufficiently. Students should look carefully for schools that offer rigorous classes in each area. Workers can enroll in training programs needed to fill out their offering. If you are still looking for work you truly enjoy, get that graduate degree or additional experience in the discipline you love, not just one you think will give you marketable skills. You can add in the computing and math skills you need along the way and learn how to be excited by work again.

In time, forward thinking educational institutions will continue their march toward making classes outside traditional majors more available to all students. Perhaps they will finally eliminate walls that artificially divide departments and share the expertise needed by all more easily. The most progressive organizations will require all three skills through an integrated program. Until then, businesses and organizations will divide the work among three people. But those with the right training will continue to make themselves indispensable by delivering on the triple-strengths of the modern worker.