Article

Technology, agility and reskilling

Reimagining the future of work

May 28, 2019

Unlocking human potential has been a recurring theme in conversations for many years. The idea of a ‘fourth industrial revolution’ dominated by new technology and where our relationship to work is redefined is now lending it a greater urgency. Boards are concerned with what leadership might look like in an organization where the idea of a job as a single entity no longer applies, and a sense that there will be mass redundancies amid a rise of the robots means that fear is starting to dominate discussions.

Two of the developments that are driving these fears are the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and what could be called social robotics. AI is about not telling the computer anything beyond how to process the data and is increasingly finding a use in Robotic Process Automation or RPA. Many companies will have legacy systems that people need to access in order to complete a task and RPA can remove the need for those so-called ‘swivel chair jobs’ by automating them away.

Social robotics does not mean the older generation of assembly line robots, but a new one where robots are able to understand the world around them using an array of sensors and huge processing power. Amazon is using them in its warehouse and chatbots such as Alexa are providing a way for companies to completely reinvent how they interact with customers. Where outsourcing to other jurisdictions was used to bring costs down, this is potentially much more cost effective.

The fear arises from the idea that rather than augmenting humans and helping them to do their jobs, AI and robotics will instead lead to their replacement. But what lends extra credence to the augmentation rather than the replacement theory is that research conducted by Willis Towers Watson in 2017 says that 45% of companies see technology as an important way of boosting existing productivity and only 28% see it as a way of reducing cost, potentially by reducing the wage bill.

What this suggests is that seeing work through an augmentation versus replacement lens overlooks one of the main differentiators – talent. If every company has access to the same technology, what separates them from each other and what delivers competitive advantage are the skills of its people. No company can ever hope to be a market leader if its strategy is based solely around driving costs down, but being able to find the best people and to on-board them before the competition does will give it the edge.

Using agility to embrace the future

In concert with the shifting focus on technology is a preoccupation with becoming more agile. The latest in a long line of words that are on their way to becoming staples of corporate conversation, agility applies to organizations that can complete the recruitment process swiftly but that also have a broader view of how they themselves are structured and, significantly, how each job is structured.

Traditionally, jobs were solid things with people working at their desks, having little contact with each other. It is increasingly the case that companies are starting to deconstruct this solidity and think about the tasks that are involved, which makes it easier to augment them using technology. Repetitive, boring tasks that are bounded by well-defined rules can be automated away and, according to some projections, deliver 30 to 40 percent cost savings just by freeing the employee’s time for other tasks.

Imagine you are a salesperson. You pick up the phone and call a contact, but have an intelligent system next to you that helps you recommend the right things to the person you're talking to. It might know and understand what the customer has bought so it can assist in converting this customer by helping them find what they want.

This sets up a new relationship that is not about a person and their job, but between talent and the work that needs to be done. In turn, this idea drives the creation of an internal marketplace or a talent platform for skills, which is overseen by the company that has a helicopter view of the skills, talents and preferences of all its workers. And the definition as to what constitutes a worker is broadened to include not only full time employees but also contractors, freelancers and even people from the wider ecosystem who have the skills needed for specific tasks.

To see how this talent platform interfaces with technology, consider the example of an oil drilling company in the US. They introduced AI and automation technology on the oil rigs. This meant that their maintenance engineers did not have to go there on a regular basis in order to inspect the platform. When you remember that they would have had to fly into what is a very hazardous and dirty environment, this is clearly a good thing. But because one of the company’s core values was to retain its people, they were retrained so that they could sit in a much safer onshore environment looking at data from the sensors on the platform.

Reskilling the talent pool

This idea of reskilling people is set to become more important and one that comes up in the wider conversation around the future of work as technology disrupts existing ways of doing things. Every organization will need to understand the adjacency between what workers do today, what they are needed to do tomorrow and what their combination of skills are.

Where a lot of the talk about combinations of skills is significant is that it shows you how AI and RPA will never fully threaten our jobs, because we humans are infinitely flexible and adaptable. People often ask what jobs our children will do in the future, and what will be the necessary skills, but this is an almost impossible question to answer. Ten or 15 years ago nobody thought that there would be such a thing as an app developer, but the job market for that set of skills is booming.

Nobody can predict the future, but we can predict in a fairly safe way that things we instinctively do as humans will remain valuable. These also include how we lead people, how we mentor people, how we work in teams, how we understand complex problems and how we empathize. It's those tasks that will firmly remain with the human for the foreseeable future. And interestingly these are the very high value tasks especially in an economy where serving customers is the most important thing of all.

By 2022, it is estimated by the World Economic Forum in their 2018 Future of Jobs report that 54% of all employees would require significant re and upskilling. A 2016 version of the same report listed 10 skills that would be in demand by 2020, including cognitive flexibility, emotional intelligence and complex problem solving; not skills that the present generation of technology excels at or is likely to for some considerable time.

The end of the silo and the start of the platform

Becoming more agile is not without risk. Perhaps most relevant is the idea of security and privacy. As each organization becomes more open, they can also open up their data and systems and even the necessary collaboration with people from outside the organization can create vulnerabilities. While new openness and trust is essential for organizations to succeed, they also have to think much harder about cybersecurity, privacy, IP protection and all the new risks that were not present in a closed environment. The castle is opening up and the disruptors are moving in.

And finally, there are risks inherent in changing, or conversely, not changing, the organization to embrace the new ways of working. Some companies have given up trying to change their culture and have started a new organization entirely, with the intention being to migrate wholly to the new one when the time is right. That might be seen as an alternative methodology, but many organizations increasingly recognize that old structures are no longer working for them.

It means abandoning departmental silos, and moving to a much flatter, platform based organization. Companies are invested in providing the means for all their people to be creative and Apple is a classic example. If you are an app developer, you may not work for Apple directly, but essentially you are under their umbrella because making your app can potentially make you rich and make Apple rich as well.

We do a lot of work on employee experience and communication for organizations, which essentially means how we shift behaviours. Perhaps you are in an organization where staff were rewarded for being successful on their own and did not collaborate with others because they did not need to or because they were not encouraged to. And yet they are now required to collaborate with others. The company must think about changing the behaviour and make its people trust each other.

But for all the fear that surrounds the future of work, it contains a huge opportunity for anyone who is ready to exploit the changing nature of employment and realize the benefits of true agility. There are real productivity gains to be made and employees can find that their mundane and boring duties are automated away. The fourth industrial revolution may yet be made to deliver benefits for anyone with the imagination to see them – and the courage to embrace work driven by skills not habit.

Willis Towers Watson Media 

George leads Willis Towers Watson's consulting practice in Great Britain on the Future of Work and the impact of artificial intelligence in the workplace. He has over 25 years' experience in management consulting, media, marketing and communications, as well as in digital strategy and innovation.

George Zarkadakis
Digital lead, Talent & Rewards