To be productive and harmonious in the 21st century and beyond, humanity will need to identify, measure, and develop new competencies to address new life challenges and work roles. Due to warp-speed innovation and daring new technologies, many 20th century work competencies have become obsolete faster than society can adjust to their demise. Think assembly line workers who are continually being replaced by advanced robotics. Think onsite, 9-5 jobs transformed into flexible virtual environments. Think “head hunters” who are being replaced by “job boards.”


Medical Apps and gadgets are already replacing trainers, nutritionists, and/or even doctors and nurses. According to an intriguing article on changing workplace skills, an innovative computer software program–“C-Path”–can examine thousands of tissue scans to diagnose patients with breast cancer and then based on its data, predict their survival rates. The article even notes that “some believe the C-Path, which is built on digital imagery, is as good as or even better than a human doctor.”

Work in this century is dramatically changing with technological advances, crowd sourcing, and population needs. What new competencies are needed to live and work in the 21st century? How can we keep up in a world where artificial intelligence may begin to replace the way we problem solve and take action? Where information and even knowledge is so easily accessible?

In short, the paradigm shift has already begun; we simply need to catch up by creating and developing new competencies in leadership and innovation, among others. What happens if we don’t? If we don’t adjust and adapt, society will certainly pay a price. Economic and emotional turmoil are likely outcomes as workers continue to be left behind.


Psychologists who specialize in assessment recognize these trends and there is a substantial record of work on defining the competencies of individuals which support both individual and organizational success. Here is a brief list of some of the many competency information resources for anyone interested in better understanding the field or in pursuing competency research:

  • The Successful Managers Handbook — Personnel Decisions.com
  • Career Architect — Lominger Competency List
  • Competency Based Performance Improvement — David D. Dubois
  • The Art and Science of Competency Models
  • Emotional Intelligence — Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis
  • The Habits of Highly Effective People — Stephen Covey
  • Diversity and Leadership — Jean Lau Chin
  • Team of Rivals — Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • South — Ernest Shackleton
  • Beyond Band of Brothers — Major Dick Winters
  • The Airplane — Jay Spenser
  • Innovators — Walter Isaacson

Of these references, Isaacson’s book is unique in teeing up research into 21st Century competences by tracing the history of the men and women, and their individual and common competencies, associated with the creation of the computer and the Internet. Similarly, Jay Spenser’s book describes the knowledge, skills and attributes (the classic grouping of human competences) that helped humans fly. Several other resources cover leadership competencies through different periods of history.

A Timely Example

Do those working for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the agency charged with screening all airline passengers to ensure no guns, or weapons of any kind get onto airplanes have the right knowledge, skills and attributes to do their job? This is a competency question that affects all of us, whether we fly or not. Recently, the results of testing the effectiveness of the TSA agents to stop the “bad guys” were released. 67 out of 70 times, secret agents were able to get weapons and fake bombs past TSA security. Many of us were shocked. The head of the TSA resigned.

Now what? Of course the usual expert recommendations including more and better training quickly followed. But will more training or better training make a difference? Let’s discuss TSA agent competencies that we think make a difference in the TSA’s effectiveness. To begin, let me pose several competency based questions:

  1. What competencies (knowledge, skills, attributes) do TSA passenger facing (having direct contact) agents need?
    • In the opinion or current practice of TSA management?
    • In your opinion?
  1. What at competencies (knowledge, skills, attributes) do TSA passenger facing (having direct contact) agents have?
    • How are these competencies measured by the TSA?
    • Do those agents who discovered and stopped forbidden items have any different competencies and/or different levels of specific competencies then those who as those who missed forbidden items?
  1. What role does technology play?
    • Advanced Imaging Technology
    • Impact on privacy?
    • Sensitivity training?

In my opinion, three of the competences that could make a difference are Curiosity, Persistence and Desire to Excel. Wilbur and Orville Wright displayed these 100 years ago. So do many of the “disruptors” coming out of today’s Silicon Valley. Do these competencies make your list? Let me also predict that many of those attending the Kahn Institute or listening to TED lectures have them. What are your thoughts?