Sunday, June 29, 2014

CATCH as a Career Development Acronym: Merging Conceptual, Analytical, Technical, Creative and Holistic Skills

Young people regardless of educational stream are restless to discover the elixir of professional growth. Each educational stream by virtue of the unique nature of its domain imbues in its students certain unique capabilities. Literature, for example, provides its students with an ability to appreciate the dynamics of humans and nature. Commerce makes its students aware of the worth of trade and business. Accounting makes students proficient in deployment and measurement of assets and liabilities. Science makes its students create the bridge between the natural and synthetic; the organic and inorganic. Engineering teaches its students the ability to convert ideas into gadgets; the abstract into real. In a similar manner, each professional course that has a technical characteristic of its own provides unique characteristics to the students.

Doubtless, these professional courses help individuals enter the organizations and functions of their choice and grow in their careers based on further professional specialization or diversification. It is not, however, so well established that educational excellence by itself provides the motive force for managerial and leadership development. A simplistic, and popular, view is that if technical capabilities as embedded through professional courses are reinforced with soft skills such as communication, inter-personal and other behavioral skills, it would help individuals achieve higher goals through superior performance. While a combination of such hard skills and soft skills is undoubtedly very much needed, there is a more fundamental skill-set that enables truly superior competitive performance. This blog post proposes a model, which is described through an acronym called CATCH, that represents a combination of Conceptual, Analytical, Technical, Creative and Holistic capabilities.
Simplistically, conceptual skills are ideation or imagination skills. In a managerial sense, they represent skills that help an individual crystallize complex and abstract problems in terms of core themes and ideas. One of the fascinating conceptual analyses was displayed by Air Asia. When asked why Air Asia was trying to enter India when there were already so many low cost airliners, mostly suffering losses, pat came reply from the CEO, Mittu Chandilya who questioned if they were low cost airliners or low fare airliners. The conceptual clarity teaches us that fundamentally the firm has to be a low cost operation whereupon it can automatically be a real low fare firm, if it chooses to. Another marvelous conceptualization was telling the IIT professors struggling to dissect the cultural pros and cons of having a management school within IIT that it would be like having a mini-IIM in IIT campus.
Conceptual thinking enables a leader or manager to understand core opportunities and challenges facing a business; it cuts out clutter. It helps managers and leaders avoid distractions. Conceptual thinking is particularly helpful when firms are either in startup or end-state phase of business or when they are faced with strategic crossroads. The uncertainty of future options and unpredictability of data points are managed by conceptual definition of the core problems. A firm which has a product lead time of five years and was paralyzed from investments for five years can be conceptually concluded to have lost a decade of life and several decades of competitive advantage, even without any data analysis. Equally, such a company can be conceptually held to be capable of reentering the competitive game with only a clever acquisition. Conceptual thinking simplifies the otherwise complex business life.  
Analytical skills are those that enable an individual use a logical method of thinking about anything in order to understand it, especially by looking at all the constituent parts separately. It typically deploys scientific and research based approaches. The link between conceptual and analytical is simple; the analytical part can take off optimally once the conceptual part is clear. Taking the AirAsia example, once  conceptual clarity is established that low-cost rather than low-fare is the right model, analytics would need  to focus on how the lowest cost of operation could be achieved. This would involve analyzing every component of cost for frugality and every component of customer service for value-optimality. The more comprehensive the analysis is the better would be the operating model. That said, analytics without conceptual crystallization would be a wild goose chase.
Analysis provides choices and generates data points that could help managements make appropriate decisions. Conceptual clarity would continue to help in making analysis better. For example, layering of additional fares on base fare cannot be good analytics; so is the case with the complex dynamic fare model. The model develops in an opaque manner a high average fare for the airliner, leveraging the seductive promotional advance fares and exploitative usurious last day fares but would not be in keeping with the concept of a true low cost airliner which is expected to provide maximal perceived service with minimal absorbed cost. Analytics requires sound business background; analysts should understand the vital-essential-desirable as well as the fundamental-core-peripheral concepts as appropriate to the industry or the business one is in. Analysts should also appreciate where what tools would be relevant; operations research, for example, would be applicable for route planning while game theory could be relevant for competitor analysis and simple arithmetic appropriate for standard costing.             

Although considered allied to, or reflective of, engineering and technology, technical skills have a broader connotation as well. Any skill required to efficiently and effectively perform a job is a technical skill. Technical skill typically grows out of the knowledge of a subject and is the fundamental core to be in a domain or lead it. Every business requires a number of technical skills; what is core technical for one industry could be enabler for another industry. For example, for an automobile firm, manufacturing technology could be core while finance and IT could be supportive technical ones. For a banking firm, finance and IT could be core while civil engineering could be supportive. Regardless of such differentiation, technically one must be a master of expertise in one’s domain. Companies such as GE and Unilever focus on multi-functional expertise to build themselves into firms with sustainable competitive advantage.
Technical skills are acquired through serious curricular efforts, proactive extracurricular reading and intense on-the-job deployment and learning. Technical skills are reinforced by continuous learning; it is more than a simple learning curve effect. A doctor or surgeon continuously adds to his or her medical skills through each case he or she handles. A maintenance engineer continuously adds to his preventive maintenance capability with every breakdown maintenance case he or she handles. A product designer continuously improves his or her products by observation of customer usage and integration of material and other technologies. An accountant understands the power of numbers and their implications by continuously monitoring global accounting regulations and trends for generally accepted accounting practices of different countries, and related case laws. Being constantly studious is the only way to acquire and enhance technical skills.    
Creative skill involves the use of skill and the imagination to produce a new work in any domain, be it work of art, science or engineering. Many experts consider that creativity and originality are even more important than technical skill. If an airliner can creatively transport its employees seamlessly across the nation through a hub and spoke strategy it would provide competitive differentiation. If a full fare airliner can provide a mobile online air ticket reservation and purchase facility with anytime access without dynamic fares it could nurture for itself a creative niche. If an airliner can replace its in-flight print magazine by a digital version displayed on individual screens it could not only reduce costs but can also provide a whole archive of magazines to information lovers. If ground handling is improved to reduce vehicle turnaround by 50 percent, an airline could add one additional flight to its daily schedule. By opening its own dedicated takeaway food kiosk in the departure terminal, an airliner can save on crimped up and inadequate service on its flights, more particularly the short haul ones. Creativity differentiates the winners from the losers, more so the sustainable growth firms from the also-rans.
Creativity requires an independent and questioning mind that constantly seeks improvements at one level and out-of-the-box thinking at another level. Creative skill comes with constant observation but each time with a fresh enquiring eye. Creativity also comes with finding new ways of solving difficult problems or fulfilling customer needs in better manner. The process of technological development is based on creativity. Creativity can come from knowledge or from practice. The former should lead one to find better ways from knowledge. The latter should lead to a quest for knowledge that can improve practice. Many times, small but focused experiments become scalable for global impact. A creative payment gateway, for example, can revolutionize global online commerce. A creative patient record management system can revolutionize national healthcare registry, as another example. Successful startups develop from creative operational or business solutions.    

Holistic skill is the ability to consider a whole thing or being to be more than a collection of parts.  Holistic life and holistic medicine are examples of common phraseologies of holism. Holism is the philosophical approach that the whole, of anything, must be considered in order to understand its different parts. Holism is one of the most complex capability to possess because it is a multidimensional attribute; covering all direct and indirect influencers and current and future evolutions. Reverting to the AirAsia example, the business plan of AirAsia involving important parameters such as fleet mix, route network, schedule density and several other factors are dependent on the nature of airport infrastructure in various cities and towns. It would be segmented thinking to buy a large capacity aircraft and also hope to connect all the tier 2 and tier 3 cities; it would not work as a holistic strategy because the short runways would not accept such larger aircraft. It would be somewhat like an international airliner like Lufthansa planning to convert its entire fleet to A 380 (the largest plane) even though only few global cities can accommodate such wide-bodied plane.
Holism requires thinking and imagining beyond the obvious, connecting the visible and invisible dots of industry boundary, industry value map and inflection points in regulatory evolution. This is not necessarily the forte of the wise elderly or apex leaders; all individuals who can process multiple sets of data and information and form patterns can develop a holistic approach to what they seek to accomplish. Holism is a temporally integrative capability as well; involving an ability to connect the certain past, volatile present and uncertain future to achieve a holistic solution. It merges emotion with objectivity as well as experience with anticipation to create a new paradigm that others less endowed would find it difficult to mimic. Holism requires that the four skills discussed earlier, namely conceptual, analytical, technical and creative are well developed in an individual. Holism in such individuals acts as a capstan capability.
The catch
If these constitute the five virtuous capabilities for personality, knowledge and leadership development,  it must be intriguing that such programs emphasize only some of the capabilities; analytical and technical ones are the most emphasized. The reason lies in the belief that while analytical and technical skills can be “taught and acquired”, the other three skills are dependent on how the brain is hardwired with respect to conceptualization, creativity and holism. This could be a catch in adopting the CATCH development model on a wider scale; but the catch is more imaginary than real! As with many developmental activities, introspection, on the part of the developer and the developing (the mentor and the mentee, the guru and sishya, the boss and the subordinate, the teacher and the student, the leader and the follower, as the case may be). Fundamentally, the developer should be a CATCH personality to develop the individuals, and needless to add, even the developers would need to develop themselves to make the CATCH development template work.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on June 29 2014.         

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