“There’s never been a better time to be a worker with special skills or the right education because these people can use technology to create and capture value. However, there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots, and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate.”
That digitalization has had and continues to have an impact on modern business is in no doubt. The aforementioned words from Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of “The Second Machine Age”, capture this perfectly. The onward march of technology in our work and personal lives continues, unstoppable as it is. The automobile racked up 50 million users in 62 years, but the mobile phone game Pokémon Go hit the same mark in just 19 days! There is no doubt that as time passes, our work will involve more machines, not less.
Opinions about the extent of the impact vary. Oxford researchers in 2013 opined a 50% automation rate for all US jobs, while 2017 saw McKinsey suggest the possibility of up to 33% of constituent activities to meet the same fortune, leading to huge changes at the workplace and for all workers therein. Whatever be the number, there is no denying that the imperatives for businesses include comprehending new job roles as well as how digital technology penetration is leading to changes in work.
What matters to thrive in the digital economy is focusing on outcomes as against processes. Digitalization makes such focus easier due to the convenience of quick and easy measurement and testing. Looking instead at processes makes people operate mechanically, not as integral cells of the organization. Technology is accepted to have a short lifecycle of possibly just a few months, but people skills are wrongly assumed to be good for several years. This complicates the planning of workforce skills, the sourcing of the right people with the requisite skills, and the passing on of necessary skills to existing employees.
This becomes even more pronounced when the workforce is skilled with legacy business models and platforms, overseen by communication and thought processes based on hierarchies. Coming up to pace – or indeed setting the pace itself – in the digital age requires this to change, and fast.
And this is not done just by bringing in fancy consultants or moving operations to digital hotspots. The skillsets of the present workforce need to be augmented with the right skills and mindsets for digitalization, along with external sourcing of some skills. This is because there is no one blanket way of applying digitalization, and it must be brought in as per the specific needs of the business under consideration. Existing employees know the business, its customers, and its culture better than any bright new outsider, and are best placed to determine workflow bottlenecks to be tackled first and the level of digitalization to be brought in at a time.
Exposure to advanced technology is no guarantee of possessing the talent for the digital world. Employees must be willing to learn, and agile and flexible in their work approach. Identifying and rewarding such behaviors will ensure the workforce evolves as per the technology.
Most employees are likely to already be in possession of the skills needed for future-readiness. Identifying and standardizing these skills can prepare workforce suitably. Start with assessing the talent, using the results to create pathways for development, and learning that cultivate behaviors essential for long-term organizational success. Allow employees some control over their training and development plans, which makes it easier to get their buy-in.
Any such initiative must be backed by leadership. A growth mindset can truly take root only when implemented and supported at all levels, and leaders must make available the resources employees need to reskill themselves and develop professionally, with their key performance indicators (KPIs) being adjusted accordingly.
Key action items here include:
Competing in the new digital economy requires a great amount of effort. Businesses must be disciplined in learning the workings of the market, and talent plans seeking to develop existing staff based on new market ideas and focusing on outcomes are the basis for making organizations successful.