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Variability, Uncertainty, Complexity & Ambiguity (VUCA)

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Ever heard of "VUCA"? You should have — it's the world you now live in.

The term  which stands for Variability, Uncertainty, Complexity & Ambiguity — comes out of military planning, and has recently made its way into business planning as well.  It's time it reached education.

VUCA is one of the four defining characteristic of our times. (The others, I believe, are an accelerating pace of change, extended brains, and a networked world.)

"The particular meaning and relevance of VUCA often relates to how people view the conditions under which they make decisions, plan forward, manage risks, foster change and solve problems" writes the author of the Wikipedia entry. "In general, the premises of VUCA tend to shape an organization's capacity to:

  1. Anticipate the Issues that Shape Conditions
  2. Understand the Consequences of Issues and Actions
  3. Appreciate the Interdependence of Variables
  4. Prepare for Alternative Realities and Challenges
  5. Interpret and Address Relevant Opportunities"

These are all useful things for educators to get better at.  Let's look at each of the VUCA components in turn:

Variability

There is far more variability in our world than there used to be -- half of the most turbulent financial quarters during the past 30 years have occurred since 2002, per The Boston Consulting Group.  Bitcoin, a new, technology-based currency, has in a very short time gone from less than a penny to over $1000 and much of the way back again.  Even the weather is much more variable than it was. 

How does this affect education? Think of all the technology choices we have to make -- today X is best, tomorrow Y.  Today (in the U.S.) it's Common Core but the chances of that being different in a couple of years are enormous. Test scores and rankings go up one year and down the next. Even our students are growing more variable, as our schools become more diverse, and as our kids react to the growing chasm between school and life.

Uncertainty

There are many fewer paths today to reliably get one somewhere in life than there were in the past.  It used to be a "given" that more education and higher degrees would assure a higher income. But so much is now changing that's no longer necessarily the case. As my former part-time assistant (mostly unemployed) put it, "I fell for that."

In the U.S., owning your home was, for a long while, a sure path to financial security -- now there are millions who regret taking that path. Most startups fizzle, but a few go quickly to being worth billions —  but even the venture capitalists can't predict which.

And, although some broad outlines are clear, we now know less and less about the details of the world our kids will live in.

Complexity

There are certainly more complex projects in the world — space missions, terraforming, brain mapping — but, most importantly, there are a whole lot more people.  The world's population quadrupled in the last hundred years, from 1.7 billion to 7.1 billion, and is still rising. Even if it levels off, as some predict, there will still be a huge increase in a short time.

More complexity and greater competition go hand-in-hand. Look at the process, in the U.S., of getting, into a good college. It is now a hugely complex undertaking that begins at birth, and involves specialists and hoards of other people. Demographics now play a huge role. I know a smart, hard-working kid who, after switching to a fancy private school to get into a good college, made the waiting list at five Ivy schools — only to be rejected by all of them. 

Ambiguity

Things are seldom, anymore, only what they seem.  We've had to invent new language, such as  "frenemy" and "co-petition" to describe the ambiguities that now exist in our world.

Our worst students by some measures are our best by others. There is increasing ambiguity about the role of educators, as technology gets better at doing part of the job. There is growing ambiguity between "teacher" and "student" as kids grow more expert at technology than many of their elders. With all of us taking on multiple new roles, there is ambiguity about which role to play when.

The Potent Combination

Each of these factors —  increased variability, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity — is, by itself, disruptive and unsetting. But it is the concurrence of the sharp increase in these four VUCA factors that makes this worth paying attention to. It behooves us all to take a moment to ask ourselves how VUCA affects our life and work, as well as the lives and work of our colleagues, our children, and our students.

"VUCA," writes the Wikipedia contributor, is "a practical code for awareness and readiness." Now that we all know there is a code, we better begin thinking about what it is telling us — and about what we should do as a result.

(A version was originally published in Educational Technology magazine March-April 2014)

As always, your comments are welcome.

Marc

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