If current trends such as economic globalization, financial deleveraging, and regulatory tightening continue, corporations will face an increasing need for effective thinkers to sustain their growth. But the educational system is not preparing new workers for the realities of the 21st century. Leading firms will have to make up the “soft” skills deficit — in many cases outsourcing training for critical thinking and related skills.

In “The Real Education Gap,” Chief Learning Officer (January 2012), author Sandi Edwards remarks on the 2010 American Management Association (AMA) Critical Skills Survey, in which it is reported that critical thinking is one of four related “soft” skills are that not being adequately taught in school. In terms of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity (“The Four Cs”), “new American workers come up short, regardless of the quality of their educations.” In that AMA survey, it was shown that the overwhelming majority of executives had begun to emphasize this “new set of skills, that was neither intuitive for most people nor taught in school.” According to the survey, executives judged only 38% of their staff were above average as critical thinkers, while over three out of four said that they believe the “Four Cs” skills will become more important to their organizations in the near future, as the economy struggles to expand in the wake of the Great Recession. (I personally expect a decade of stagflation, but executives can be excused for their optimism.)

It is not very surprising that graduates of three-Rs-oriented high schools are weak in these areas, but new employees at larger companies tend to be freshly-minted university graduates, and companies are hardly to be faulted for expecting that incoming hires have received “Four Cs” education in their college classes, if not earlier in their education. And if critical thinking is a desirable skill for the individual contributor, it is even more important for managers and leaders.

Longer term, the educational system can be reformed so that the learning of critical thinking and related skills becomes integrated throughout the curriculum at the high school and university levels. For firms’ current employees though, especially for those on leadership tracks, companies have no choice but to develop their own employees in these areas, whether training and development is to be handled internally, or outsourced.

One question Edwards raises in her article is thought-provoking: why did Nokia completely miss the transition to smartphones and get eclipsed by Apple and the Android handset-makers? The suggestion is that the C-level at Nokia discounted the relevance of a Four-Cs culture to innovation. The fact that Nokia is Finnish (not North American) doesn’t matter — we could similarly ask how Research in Motion (based in Waterloo, Ontario) missed the smartphone boat with the Blackberry platform.

Indeed, the RIM situation is even more puzzling, because if anyone has the gene for promotion of innovation written in their DNA, it is RIM founder, Mike Lazaridis. Lazaridis is well-known for his investments in advanced science and technology, including the Institute for Quantum Computing and the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology, not to mention the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Business agility may be far more important for a company than a culture of innovation. Nevertheless, both business agility and an innovative culture are traits that cannot be sustained without a commitment to the development of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity at all levels of the organization.