There used to be at least a couple of ways you could make it in this world besides being born rich and lucky. The Beatles became “the toppermost of the poppermost” not by chance, but by unconsciously following what Malcolm Gladwell called the 10,000 hour rule: playing gig after gig, hour upon hour, night after night in dingy clubs and seedy ballrooms, developing their musicianship and having the guts (and ability) to write and push their own songs in an era dominated by off-the-shelf Tin Pan Alley ditties.

It was an old formula – practice, practice, practice until you get really good at what you do. With a fair wind and a modicum of good fortune you could then build a career or trade.

At the other end of the scale is the route described by the futurist and demographer Bernard Salt. To become a corporate titan, the CEO of a muscled up, get-ahead business, basically you needed – and I’m summarising here – an impressive academic record and lots of experience. It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll in the boardroom.

So, to put it very simply, you could practice, practice, practice and/or take a degree then work really hard.

Today, for a new generation of workers and businesses, it’s not so straightforward.

Things have changed. Big time.

A new report by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) declares that a formal education “no longer provides a sufficient skills basis for the rest of a person’s working life”.

What individuals and organisations need, says the report, Skills and Capabilities For Australian Enterprise Innovation (PDF) are continual skills development – while universities and other teaching institutions should “teach more broadly across disciplines, covering transferable skills alongside specialist knowledge”.

ACOLA surveyed a number of leading firms, not for profits and public utilities and found that in the face of volatility sparked by digital disruption a mix of skill sets was crucial – STEM was important, but so too were attributes derived from the arts and humanities.

Innovative companies needed diversity in its various forms – including skills diversity – “based on the realisation that much innovation happens at the intersection of different disciplines and ways of thinking about problems”.

ACOLA also found that “T-shaped leaders” – those with deep knowledge in one field and broad understanding across many other fields – tended to run more innovative organisations.

Leadership for innovation often requires stepping outside the company’s traditional core competencies to develop diversity of skills at all levels of the organisation.”

Higher education, it says, needs to become more aligned to 21st century workforce requirements including higher-order integration, or holism, as a common attribute.

The report notes an analysis of 4.2 million recent job advertisements, which found a 212 per cent increase in jobs demanding digital literacy, a 158 per cent rise in jobs demanding critical thinking, and a 65 per cent rise in jobs demanding creativity.

This year a national census will be held in Australia, the previous one being in 2011. In that time new jobs have appeared which didn’t exist a mere five years ago, according to a report in The Sydney Morning Herald. These include middleware integrator, data visualisation officer and social media community manager.

ACOLA says higher education must lead the way in helping the new generation to adapt to these vastly changed circumstances.

Higher-order skills and capabilities integration should be central to a university education, meaning “serious attention to curriculums that integrate disciplines and faculties”.

Many universities world-wide are changing and adapting to the new order.

The big question is can they do it quickly and consistently enough to keep pace?

Time will tell, but the clock is ticking.

DM