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The importance of Critical Intelligence in navigating the VUCA world

By Gianni Zappala - posted Friday, 6 April 2018

Intelligence is essentially about our ability to solve problems and think about them in different contexts. The way we understand intelligence is changing, and this is reflected in how we work, what employers look for in future employees, and how best to enable the skills required by the future workforce. Traditional ideas of intelligence - the IQ-based logical, rational, and analytical competencies required to solve technical problems - are no longer the only skills we encounter in life or work. The recent popularity of design thinking in management and professional development circles is one illustration of this change.

A series of recent Australian and international reports have highlighted how the jobs of the future will require different kinds of skills and competencies to those that have served people well for most of the 20th century. In Australia, research by the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) on the future of work has shown that the types of problems young people face, and the skills required to address them are changing – a new work order is emerging. The so-called 'soft', 'enterprise' or '21st century' skills are becoming increasingly important with Deloitte Access Economics estimating that two-thirds of new jobs will be 'soft-skill' intensive. These jobs will require emotional and social intelligence, competencies that enable people to deal with change, ambiguity, address complex problems, think critically and creatively and be able to transfer those skills across several jobs and occupations in a lifetime.

The key drivers of this change include the unprecedented pace of disruption caused by globalization, automation and collaboration that has led to the decline of low-skilled manufacturing and the rise of knowledge industries. Even jobs within the service sector are not immune, with some estimates suggesting that 60% of graduate professions are likely to be altered dramatically or eliminated in the next decade.


The Deloitte research also points to a skills gap between young people and the emerging labour market's need for 'soft' skills. Employers, schools, universities and vocational education providers need to complement their focus on technical knowledge (increasingly job-based) with an equal priority to build these 'enterprising' or 'soft' skills.

The problem is that all levels of the education system still focus primarily on IQ. In schools, for instance, despite changes to the curriculum that has seen the introduction of 'soft skill' capabilities, the focus on standardised testing such as NAPLAN dominates discussion. While universities seem to acknowledge the importance of 'soft skills' in their list of graduate attributes, the evidence suggests little is being done in the way of developing them, and the traditional lecture style pedagogy remains the norm.

The development of the concept of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) in the 1980s and 90s acknowledged the limitations of IQ and recognized that the ability to empathise and display compassion with another's situation is also a critical competency to being effective in our work lives. IQ + EQ however is still a limited combination of intelligence in the context of a rapidly transforming and unpredictable work landscape, where adaptive challenges are pervasive.

Table 1 Key characteristics of Contextual and Spiritual Intelligence

Our educational institutions need to complement the technical IQ-based skills of young people and graduates with the competencies of what I term 'Critical Intelligence', the bringing together of key ideas from Contextual and Spiritual Intelligence (see Table 1). Critical Intelligence (CQ) is defined as the ability to diagnose and solve problems of meaning, value and purpose in VUCA contexts. Possessing Critical Intelligence means not only being aware of the technical knowledge to know how to address a problem in a given context but knowing what to do based on intuition, greater self-awareness and consciousness and the ability to see connections and patterns between seemingly different events and data.


A key question educators need to ask therefore is: 'what type of intelligence and competencies do our school and university graduates need to navigate the so-called VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous operating environments) of the 21st century? Interestingly, as Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati have pointed out, our brains elicit emotional responses and suppress logical ones when confronted with VUCA challenges leading to feelings of anxiety and discomfort. Our educational systems and curricula give primacy to the very type of intelligence our own biology says is ineffective in dealing with ambiguity!

Table 2 Key approaches and practices to cultivate Critical Intelligence

If Critical Intelligence is required to be effective in the new work order, another important question is how to best cultivate it among our young people in schools and universities? The research from Contextual and Spiritual intelligence suggests giving emphasis to modes of learning that are experiential and contemplative rather than analytical and cognitive (see Table 2).

The new work order means that the nature of jobs and the types of problems encountered are changing. The former will be soft skill intensive and the latter will increasingly occur in environments characterized by uncertainty and ambiguity. While the traditional rational intelligence usually used to solve logical or strategic problems (IQ) is important, as is the ability to empathise and display compassion with another's situation (EQ), they need to be underpinned by Critical Intelligence (CQ) – the ability to diagnose and solve problems of meaning, value and purpose in VUCA contexts.

The challenge for education and training providers will be how to equip our young people and emerging leaders with what the FYA has called the 'new work smarts'? Critical Intelligence requires a shift to experiential and contemplative modes of learning and a recognition that skill development and intelligence does not result solely from formal education, age-based experience or intellectual prowess. Critical Intelligence requires a pedagogy that engages people's head, heart and inner intuitive voice.

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About the Author

Dr Gianni Zappalà is Principal of Orfeus SQ, which develops and cultivates people’s Spiritual Intelligence (SQ ) to help them achieve their purpose and have meaningful impact in their personal and work lives and Adjunct A/Professor at the Centre for Social Impact, UNSW.

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