Posted by Robin Jones on March 25, 2020.
The pace of disruption caused by digital technologies in virtually every business sector is accelerating as AI and robotics gain ground in the enterprise. Cloud, mobile, and social computing have already driven workplace changes that have made the skills gap a pressing issue for managers. The rise of cognitive technologies adds urgency to the challenge of ensuring that employees have the talent and skills needed to create value. Robin Jones, principal in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Human Capital Practice and Leader of it’s Workforce Transformation practice, recently sat down with MIT Sloan Management Review in an interview for a special collection on Developing the Future Ready – Resilient – Workforce. Robin starts by citing research, which shows that a majority of employers believe that at least half of their workforces will need to be reskilled for new jobs in the future.
“Work is being changed in some very fundamental ways,” says Jones. “Nearly all the work that we do will involve people working with either a smart machine or a robot. Many businesses are really challenged by this shift, even as they provide employee training and development. And educational institutions are a lagging indicator of this disruption. We need to think about the approaches we’re taking, the resources we’re investing, how quickly we’re moving, and [whether we are] fit for purpose. Are we asking the right questions when we’re thinking about this challenge of education and work disrupted?”
Q: How have businesses thought about workplace skills requirements in the past, and how is the changing nature of work affecting that?
Jones: Traditionally, whether we’ve been talking about knowledge workers or factory workers, we’ve asked, “What skills does our workforce need to do highly prescribed, specific activities?” Training has focused on making sure that the context is clear, the rules are clear, the process is clear, and that workers follow prescribed routines.
This view is being challenged, because highly mechanized, consistent work that follows a well-articulated workflow is increasingly likely to be automated. The tasks assigned to humans are those that are less prescribed. Then it becomes more important for employees to not only understand problems in a specific context, but also be able to work across contexts and solve different kinds of problems.
Today, companies—and employees—are really in two worlds. There are some requirements for reskilling that are very narrow and context-specific—such as knowing a specific computer language or how to work within a certain customer relationship management software environment. But reskilling in this way is not enough, because it addresses only a fraction of workforce shortfalls. We also need to develop capabilities that are increasingly critical for people who are working with machines.
Q. What should reskilling focus on, then, to meet the needs of this new work environment?
Jones: The questions to ask almost go beyond reskilling: How do we help develop as corporations, and educational institutions, and individuals? How do we build resilience in the workforce—that is, support workers who can develop their own skills and are prepared from the outset to constantly reinvent themselves? We’re not trying to go from one set of static skills to another set of static skills, but rather to build workers whose capabilities can be applied across contexts and who are continuous learners.
Q. What are the specific capabilities that will be more critical in the future workplace?
Jones: Communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, self-development, curiosity, empathy, and an ability to work with teams continually come up. We should also consider this question of what enduring and essential human skills we need in a forward-looking way: Human capabilities need to be understood relative to what machines can do and how machines are changing.
Increasingly, there will be functions that we used to think of as part of the human domain that machines can now perform better than us. For example, what aspect of decision-making is human, and what aspect of it can be done by a machine? Applying the ethical dimension to a decision may be the human aspect.
We know that machines are particularly good at what we call artificial, narrow intelligence, while humans are particularly good at what we call general intelligence—the ability to generalize, to draw inferences, to almost see around corners. Interestingly, these skills are probably more valuable when they’re coupled with what machines can do. For example, machines can take on routine customer service tasks, freeing human service representatives to focus on resolving more complicated requests and building a stronger relationship with the customer. In health care, some surgeons are working with robots to assist with surgeries: The machines increase surgeons’ ability to see with sharper resolution and provide more control when performing intricate procedures in hard-to-reach areas.
Valuing curiosity—the human ability to ask questions—is indicative of moving from a production economy to a knowledge economy and, now, to an imagination economy. All companies are trying to figure out how they can be more productive, manage knowledge more effectively, and create value by tapping imagination and creativity on doing new things.
Q. What challenges do these issues raise for our system of education?
Jones: The two most pronounced challenges for the educational system are the pace at which technology is changing work and the fact that in the 21st century, we’re considering 100-year lives, as Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott tell us. How do we create educational strategies that cover 75 years of someone’s life? Most educational institutions today focus on providing education through around 22 or 23 years of age. If you need to reeducate or reinvent yourself six, seven, or eight times in your life, it raises fundamental questions for our educational institutions, our educational strategies, and our educational financing. How do we align so that the education system and the new needs for lifelong learning are in sync?
Q. How optimistic are you that individuals can rise to the challenge of the new world of work?
Jones: Managers often think that employees aren’t willing or able to adapt, but it’s a mistake to count the worker out. When we ask workers about their adaptability, most of them are ready to go the distance.
What they’re looking for are opportunities within organizations to reskill and to become more resilient workers. They’re also looking for educational opportunities where they can, as adult learners, really engage and build skills, not only for work, but also to feed their own curiosity and live better lives.
Q. What are business leaders tasked with as they confront this challenge?
Jones: You need a strategy for what your 21st-century workforce is going to look like, based on the technology disruption that is happening in your industry. What programs can you develop for your workers that help them find pathways within your company—where they can actually make more money and deliver more value—and also pathways in the communities in which you’re operating? That’s where the Amazon story is very compelling: We need to find pathways within our companies and within our communities.
We also need to actively forge new alliances and relationships with the educational institutions in our communities. What we’re seeing at Deloitte is that this challenge of education disrupted and work disrupted is just heating up. Leading into it—not just leaning into it—is going to be a priority for companies. How are you going to lead on this issue so that you’ve got workers who are developed, engaged, and contributing, both within your company and in the communities in which you’re operating? As individuals, businesses, educational institutions, and communities, we have a lot of work to do, but the opportunities and possibilities are inspiring.
As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see www.deloitte.com/us/about for a detailed description of our legal structure. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.
This content originally appeared in the MIT Sloan Management Review Special Collection on Developing the Future Ready – Resilient – Workforce, published March 2020. Access the full supplement here.
Robin Jonesis the leader of US Workforce Transformation in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Human Capital Practice serving commercial, government and public sector.