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Our future depends on ‘a willingness to do things differently’

Need a lesson in how to innovate? Look at what’s happening in Estonia.

Yes, that Estonia — the world’s 156th most populous country. With just over 1.3 million people, Estonia’s population is barely more than that of Dallas. And yet it’s running circles around the rest of the world when it comes to innovation.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Estonia was in shambles. “Everyday life for most of the country’s citizens was dire,” Alec Ross writes in his bestselling book The Industries of the Future. “Its currency was stripped of any value. Shops were empty and food was rationed. … Industrial production dropped in 1992 by more than 30 percent, a higher decline than America suffered during the Great Depression. Inflation skyrocketed to over 1,000 percent, and fuel costs soared by 10,000 percent.”

In short, the situation looked grim. Then Mart Laar was elected prime minister. He stabilized the economy. He opened the country’s doors to world trade. He helped implement a completely digital telephone system and put every school in the country online by 1998. “In 2000,” Ross writes, “Internet access (in Estonia) was legally enshrined as a human right by parliament.”

What really impresses me about Estonia’s story, though, is this:

“The country now spends a larger percentage of its GDP on primary school education than the United States, the United Kingdom, and nearly every other European country,” Ross writes. “School enrollment and literacy are at 100 percent. All schoolchildren are taught how to code beginning in the first grade.”

How does something like that happen?

Here’s how: In Estonia, public policy isn’t political; it’s practical. And it’s real-world practical, too. How do you turn a struggling nation into an innovation superpower? By giving its people the skills they need to succeed in a world defined by technological advancements.

Estonia’s current president, Toomas Ilves, told Ross that being competitive in a changing and complex world means his country must “change our educational system in a way that people who go through it come up with skills that are, in fact, useful in a robotic and computerized and automated era.” In short, Ilves said, Estonia has had a “willingness to actually do things differently.”

Imagine that.

There’s a clear message here for accounting and finance pros. Study after study after study drive home a crucial point for our profession: In a changing and complex world, the skills we need to succeed going forward are changing as well — and those skills aren’t the ones we learned in school. They’re decidedly non-technical — things like anticipation, strategic and critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and inspiring and motivating others. These are things we need to learn how to do in an increasingly chaotic world.

Ask organizations how much time and money they are investing in teaching these competencies to their teams, though, and the answer you’re likely to get is, “Very little.” That has to change.

Estonia has decided to teach its students the skills they’ll need to succeed in the future.

When will the accounting and finance profession reach that same conclusion?

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