Future business success depends on ‘digitising’ and re-skilling humans. Here’s what it takes…

‘We need to digitise the human’, concludes Accenture in it’s report entitled ‘Harnessing Revolution. Creating the future workforce’.

Such a statement conjures scary visions of being turned into a cyborg or suddenly having a chip injected into my brain. But then, I have always had an over-active imagination … and it turns out, that could be a good thing. According to the views below, it means I might still be employable 10 years from now! 

Accenture’s report is a thoughtful piece, drawing together the strands of AI and machine-learning, digital and technological solutions, academic and occupational education and the general realities of business operations today. 

Change needs to happen long before we start work

What comes across very clearly is the need for us urgently to start revising what we value in the workplace – and for us to initiate what’s needed for that change far earlier than graduate recruitment drives. 

These changes need to happen in classrooms and lecture theatres up and down the country, indeed, across continents and around the world. 

If much of what we have been taught and currently undertake, in school as in business, will in future be automated or machine-provisioned – or simply no longer relevant – then the way that we educate our children and subsequently train our workers, needs to radically alter in focus. 

If you haven’t already come across and read this brilliant article published by the World Economic Forum on what needs to change in the way we educate our children, I heartily recommend it. In it, the author, Zenith Media’s Head of Innovation, Tom Goodwin, questions whether the skill of agility is now more valuable than the gaining of knowledge? Whether fostering an active imagination now matters far more than ensuring the recollection of knowledge that is likely to bear little relevance to the skills requirement of the future? 

Goodwin writes that: ‘the changing world means that we need to prepare kids in a totally different way. A 5-year old today will enter a working world in 2030 that is so incomprehensible that we need an existential re-imagination of the very foundation of education…’

What lies ahead for the workers of our near future?

The vital future skills that Goodwin identifies as relevant for the workplace of the future include: relationship-building, curiosity, agility, creativity and empathy. Forget coding, he advises, we need to be teaching our kids to dream.

These are skills that a machine would be hard-placed to emulate to the degree that a human mind can.  

Particularly impactful is his assertion that ‘[t]he reality of the modern age is that I learned more in one year of a well-curated twitter feed that in my entire masters degree. I have better relationships from LinkedIn than from university.’

‘An existential re-imagination of the very foundation of education…’

Goodwin’s observation tallies well with Accenture’s findings. 

Accenture emphasises that ‘[d]igital has already delivered a major blow to businesses slow to respond. There’s more to come. The very concept of work is being redefined as different generations enter and exit the workforce amidst a rapidly changing technological landscape…’

‘The very concept of work is being redefined’

Heavily aligned with Goodwin’s observations about the critical workplace skills of the future and the inadequacy of today’s education system to provide them, Accenture identifies a global talent shortage; a gap that it contends will only worsen as advances in technology further increase existing talent mismatches. 

‘Although CEOs rank workforce high on their list of priorities, they’re not translating concern into action. In the meantime, the skills gap is becoming an ever-widening chasm. Already today, 40 percent of employers report talent shortages. With dramatic shifts in expected skills requirements, the gap is likely to increase. Dramatically. In fact, by 2020, more than one-third of the desired skill sets of most jobs will be comprised of skills not yet considered crucial today.’ 

In a subsequent section of the report, Accenture points out that ‘the root cause of skills gaps reaches far back into the ecosystem to include primary and higher education. Even vocational training programs are producing workers with inadequate skills at worst. And at best, skills that become irrelevant before reskilling can even happen. There are many reasons for this: from silos that exist among talent pipeline participants to the inflexibility of the education system to change what and how it teaches. This leaves workers starting from behind and having to play catch-up.’ 

What are those essential talents? 

In its report, Accenture’s analysis of data from 2011 to 2014 reveals a rise in demand for uniquely human skills: creativity, critical thinking and empathy. 

What should leaders do in response to this? 

Happily, it’s not about replacing humans with technology. But we do need to translate concern into action. Now. 

1. Optimise technology and human ingenuity

Accenture recommends that ‘[r]esponsive and responsible leaders at the very highest levels of the organization must act to harness the power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for long-term advantage and shareholder value. Mindful to put their people first, at the center of change. The new leadership imperative is clear: Create the future workforce. Now.’

People first. In all the excitement of the rush to invest in and implement AI and machine learning solutions, we may be forgetting to invest in the very people skills that made these technological advancements possible. And have we perhaps forgotten especially to prioritise the skills that ‘the robots’ can’t hope to emulate – those identified above by Goodwin and Accenture? It seems we have.

It’s well known that there’s a current skills gap in relation to STEM (science,  technology, engineering and maths), especially amongst girls. As Accenture points out: ‘while [STEM skills] will continue to be critical, technical jobs at all skill levels require more than purely technical skills.’ They take as an example, the job of a software engineer, pointing out that alongside the technical skills, ‘this is a role that requires creativity, collaboration and business savvy. The so-called “human skills”‘.

We need to better optimise and plan for the best of what humans and technology can both offer.

Ellen Shook, Accenture’s Chief Leadership and HR Office, says that ‘paradoxically, the truly human skills, from leadership to creativity, will remain highly relevant and winning organisations will strike the right balance – leveraging the best of technology to elevate, not eliminate their people. Digital can accelerate learning by embedding training seamlessly into daily work – so learning becomes a way of life – helping workers and organisations remain relevant…’

2. Core digital skills and understanding are essential 

To achieve this, Accenture identifies that today’s business leaders must be digitally-savvy and digitally active themselves; which is a status that is still worryingly anathema to far too many of today’s existing c-suite executives and even many aspiring ones. 

Accenture’s research shows a general shortage of technology experience in boardrooms: 

‘Only 10 percent of board members surveyed report having professional technology experience. And they need new leadership skills to lead in an era of technology disruption. Specifically: the ability to manage in horizontal not hierarchal ways; the ability to demonstrate intellectual curiosity; and the ability to go beyond “measurement and management” to inspire creativity and new ways of thinking.’ 

Change, as always, can only be effective if it is lead from the top and committed to fully. 

Accenture’s model also demonstrates that ‘fewer jobs will be lost to automation if people are able to reallocate their skills to tasks that require more “human skills” such as complex analysis and social/emotional intelligence.’ 

In fact, the outcome is substantial. The report concludes that: ‘The UK would be able to reduce the share of jobs at risk of being fully automated [from c.17% today] to less than six percent by the year 2035 if skills are reallocated’. 

Doubling that pace of learning and re-training will, they say, not just materially reduce the number of jobs currently at risk, it should also substantially increase productivity. 

3. Good stewardship of tomorrow’s talent

That change needs to include what Accenture refers to as ‘good stewardship’ in relation to talent development; a need to make developing tomorrow’s talent a strategic priority for today’s business leaders. 

It can’t be about box-ticking. It can’t be about enforced developments, like apprenticeships and levies. It can’t be half-hearted.

Accenture believes that the real solutions to properly unlock the potential of tomorrow’s workers will come from collaborating with organisations, academia and governments, to identify future talent needs and to ‘reframe’ education systems and curricula so that they are relevant and best equip the younger generations of today to thrive in very different working world to the one that we know today.

Who will start this movement and keep its momentum going is another question altogether. It’s a heck of a challenge and it won’t come cheap. To build on the proverbial change management analogy, (to achieve change in a big business is like trying to turn an oil tanker in the ocean – you can’t do it fast and easily, if at all), this will be like trying to change the ocean, not just divert the course of one single tanker.

4. Invest in desirable work-places and working practices

Part of this future-proofing strategy will necessitate creating ‘trendy’ workplaces. That doesn’t mean adding slides and swings to the office reception, it means creating an environment that attracts the best talent to you. 

From flexible working practices, to skills-training and clear progression programmes, if your company doesn’t have ‘it’ brand status, everything about it could be competitively compromised in the near future. 

And while huge salary hikes have been the traditional response to trying to poach the best graduate and worker talent, it seems it may no longer be the case that you can simply throw money at the challenge and hope that that will be enough.

Accenture’s research reveals that emotional factors: well-being, status and engagement, are considered by millennials to be more important motivators than rational factors such as salary and benefits. Many of those participating in the research would rather freelance and preserve maximum flexibility over their working commitments, even if this means less predictable and potentially less secure working arrangements. 

Businesses that take an enlightened approach to rapid innovation, experimentation and ‘fail-fast’ strategies are particularly likely to appeal strongly to tomorrow’s talent.  Platforms and ecosystems that facilitate community-building, knowledge-sharing and operational empowerment will also score highly, since they mimic much of what we all experience as consumers, outside of more traditional working environments. 

5. Harness today’s wisdom and deploy it wisely

Accenture’s findings also lead it to emphasise categorically that ‘leaders need to preserve the knowledge held by their more seasoned workforce, which is massive.

‘A stark reminder of our aging population: people aged 65 and older will outnumber children under the age of five for the first time in history by 2020. 

‘Leaders need to safeguard the knowledge of these wisdom workers within while on-boarding their newer talent pools. In less than a decade from now, Millennials will make up an astounding 75 percent of the workforce.’

That statement, if true, has profound implications for today’s workforce.

The report is a good read and food for thought for politicians, business leaders and parents. Because an awful lot is about to change. 

It needs to. 

However, the outcome of that change, if we get this right, need not be awful at all.  Let’s do as Goodwin suggests and teach our kids to imagine more, to dream – and let’s all do a bit more of that ourselves…(in-between learning all the new stuff that we’re going to need to stay employed and relevant!)

Classroom pic - April 2017

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