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Adaptability – an essential competence for the future

Adaptability is not only about handling change, but also about adapting to new situations with fresh ideas and creativity.

Published : 17.01.2022

Adaptability is currently discussed as a key competence for success, both for human beings and for companies.The dictionary defines adaptability as an ability or willingness to change in order to suit different conditions. As change is the only constant in our lives, adaptability certainly is an essential competence to have.

This blog post is the first one in our series of posts about the competences that are highlighted in the SUCSESS project, where we strive to increase the employability of South African university graduates. The competences (adaptability, teamwork, communication, resilience and ethical thinking) we are going to tackle were mentioned as important ones for future graduates to have in the Gap report of the project.

Defining adaptability

As a competence, adaptability is not only about handling change, but also about adapting to new situations with fresh ideas and creativity. In fact, the ability to change is a vital survival skill in the future. The author and historian Yuval Noah Harari (2018, p. 262) has put it this way in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:

Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things, and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations. In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products – you will above all need to reinvent yourself again and again.

Evolutionary economics (e.g. Nelson 2020) stresses that organisations tend to develop processes that get them stuck in their routines. This creates limitations for the adaptability of organisations such as companies.

The same applies to human beings, the ability or the willingness to change is not innate to us. It is human nature to want things to remain the same, safe and stable, and we develop routines that are difficult to get rid of. However, we all know that it is not possible to remain in a cocoon when the world around us is evolving.

Indeed, we are facing constant change in our circumstances and existence, as well as encountering threats to our society, economy, health and wellbeing, the surrounding environment and climate, just to name a few. We need to have the ability to prepare for change and deal with its consequences. As Harari (2018) puts it, we need a lot of mental flexibility, i.e., adaptability, to survive and thrive in such a world.

Learning adaptability

Universities are doing their utmost to equip their students for the future. The fact is that no one knows what exact skills and subjects are needed in the future of work. When we decide what courses should be included in our new curriculum, we need to keep an open mind and be flexible. The contents might change fast. However, with a competence-based curriculum, it is possible to adapt to changing circumstances with less effort – to transfer skills to a new area of expertise.

Students must learn strategies for adapting to new situations. That way they are able to transfer knowledge and succeed in the future of work. The time when facts needed to be memorized is forever over. Machines are there to do routine tasks and humans can concentrate on learning more complex competences, the so-called 21st Century skills: communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking and complex problem-solving.

What are then the right strategies to strengthen adaptability in students? Approaches such as interdisciplinary learning, e.g., combining tourism with IT studies, encouraging resilience by different activities, promoting self-regulation to avoid negative behaviour, stressing that failure is acceptable as well as encouraging continuous learning, could be effective ways to start. Supporting a positive attitude and strengthening the self-esteem of the students are important as well.

The future of work requires adaptability

Students graduating in the years to come will have multiple career paths and they will need a wide portfolio of competences to thrive in the workplaces of tomorrow. When graduates enter the job market, they must be willing to learn and develop new skills repeatedly.

Multi-disciplinary and -cultural teams with various perspectives, time zones and ways of working, along with advanced technologies and platforms will be the norm in the future. These are all things that our students already practice at Haaga-Helia during their studies.

Adapting to the changes will continue once our students graduate: It is vital to keep at pace with the developments and have an open mind. This is especially important for graduates who want to proceed in their careers: Adaptability and resilience have been identified as the key competences of future leaders.

Read more about the SUCSESS project

Project description on Haaga-Helia website

SUCSESS project website