From reel tapes to satellites to now, the cloud, Naomi Climer, CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), continues to inspire her peers and future generations of engineers with her robust experience in broadcast, media, and communications technology.
Having played a crucial role in helping organizations such as BBC and Sony Professional Solutions to transition into the digital age, Naomi Climer became the first woman President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, in 2015.
Here are the excerpts of the interview.
What are the top trends that you think would redefine the space of engineering jobs in the future?
The trend of interdisciplinary mindset is permeating the engineering field. Even at an engineering level, you may need to know a little of chemical, civil, electric, and maybe even mechanical engineering. Whether you are building a bridge or a software, you need to understand a lot of disciplines. The focus has become wider than before. Now, the focus is on understanding the human impact. Systems Thinking is a trend wherein even though you might be a deep specialist, there is a need to think broadly as an engineer. In research and development, you need to have a working knowledge of many more disciplines and be good at teamwork.
The second trend is around AI and automation. It’s the kind of man-machine interface idea. From an engineering perspective, how do you design things that are not only suitable for people but also in terms of finding the most productive balance between man and machine. The key is to develop an incredibly symbiotic relationship. In the future of work, learning to work with machines is not only going to prove beneficial for the company but also for the employability and wellbeing of the individual.
Diversity of thought is going to be another redefining trend wherein understanding different viewpoints make for a richer engineering solution. And, this concept can be applied to just about any profession. A wide variety of thinking is going to be important and will bring in much better results. This is going to be an even more significant trend and this one here to stay!
In the future of work, learning to work with machines is not only going to prove beneficial for the company but also for the employability and wellbeing of the individual
Where do you see the challenges or skills' gaps arising from?
If a particular activity can be done by machines, then it is prudent to move our collective attention towards developing skills that cannot be performed by machines! The kind of skills we do need are emotional intelligence, resilience, adaptability and being able to apply the learned knowledge to the right task. The machine may possess the knowledge, but to have the knowledge and knowing how to apply is core to humans. One of the struggles that the UK education system faces is that these human skills seem to be quite difficult to teach. One of the reasons that it feels hard to teach is because it is hard to measure. You can measure the scores on a Math test. Something like resilience is not quite easy to test! There are emerging voices now that say that you can teach these skills and measure them. However, it requires a more sophisticated teaching methodology in order to measure whether these skills have been inculcated.
One of the beauties of technology is that you can begin to think about hyper-individualized education! You can use AI to help in understanding the progress made by each student and then understand their performance in terms of adaptability, resilience, and emotional skills. I don’t believe that you can replace people with machines but I do think you can augment learning with AI and machine work.
The key focus for the future of work would be to leverage this technology at scale.
What are the significant changes that you've faced over the course of your career first as an engineer and then as a people manager?
The things I have found the hardest throughout my career are the ones related to people. Influencing people, persuading people, and motivating people: these challenges have also been the most interesting. From the engineering perspective, if there is something that I have been struggling with and want to learn about, it is essential to have an organization that can facilitate that learning experience. For me personally, it has been easy to access information and training when it comes to the technical aspect of the job. However, gaining the experience of managing human situations is the thing that I have had to learn year after year. I am probably still making mistakes in learning in that sphere.
Any other challenge that you foresee going forward in 2020 that leaders should be aware of for the future?
Managing the growing remote workforce and distributed ways of working is going to be a challenge that all leaders need to prepare for. When I was working at Sony, you might have a manager in a different country whom you saw perhaps just once a year or in some cases, you never met! For both employees and managers, it is different when you are in the same room than when you are in different continents. That’s why getting better at managing relationships in a distributed workforce is going to be key.
Another idea that leaders should embrace is that of complete career changes. Given the recent changes in the demand for various skills, there are professionals who reinvent their careers every 10 years. People now have the opportunity and the motivation to switch their careers, get skilled in a different discipline and leverage their experiences from various industries.
Any particular global or APAC related challenges that perhaps even the UK is facing at the moment?
When we look at the landscape of skills in demand and the talent shortage, there are regions in the UK where there are real skill issues and shortage of work. There are several areas where there is not as much highly skilled paid work, for example in the north of England. While in the south of England, there is more work available. At present, we are trying to map our regions and understand whether there might be particular skills that are emerging. For example, on a global level, there is a lot of work being done in the wind energy sector and in the UK a lot of that is out at sea. Thus, the coastal lines of the UK might develop expertise in renewability.
Another trend that had redefined the talent scenario back in the day was globalization and now the trend is back to nationalization. I am a great believer of trends going in cycles. I assume that we will be coming back to globalization at some point.
Managing the growing remote workforce and distributed ways of working is going to be a challenge that all leaders need to prepare for
What would be your advice to business leaders and engineering professionals who are navigating through the competitive landscape of work and skills in 2020?
Engineers generally have fantastic transferable skills. They have analytical skills; they have to have the ability to learn because technology has been changing the whole time, and thus are used to learning and evolving continuously. Skills such as process management can be transferred easily from the engineering profession to any other.
At the same time, I can understand how someone who has been a specialist and built in-depth expertise might feel if their skills are no longer relevant. My encouragement to such professionals would be to venture out and explore new fields. It’s not too late for anybody to become a revered expert in a new discipline. If somebody is motivated to do that because things are changing all the time, there is always something new that needs knowledge and unique expertise. Having the willingness to let go of something that you took decades to build up, requires courage. At the same time, a large piece of what you already know is bound to be helpful in the next field you choose. There is so much that will come with you when you move to something new.
The key to excel in this transition would be to break out of the silos and gather together as individuals, organizations, government officials, and academics on a unified platform. Events such as this, IET’s Engineering the Future of Work, is creating awareness about this need, while providing a platform for everyone to engage and discuss our future actions.
Having worked with the BBC and Sony Pictures, can you share some insights about the engineering side of the media space?
When I was working at the BBC, the challenges revolved around moving from tape to digital. That was a major transition. These days, the industry is thinking about how to leverage AI in data reporting. Identifying patterns in numbers and giving global contexts to stories has become easier with the help of AI in sorting out relevant data. The space where human intelligence is going to play a part is in the vetting of the stories and identifying the accurate information in an age where anyone can submit a news story with their mobile phone.
How did you make the skill transition from worrying about Satellite trucks on remote locations to where you are today?
In my case, the various technologies that I was involved in was a question of just following my interest at the time, and I guess, the next step was making the transition into management where I almost had to step away so that I could take up my technical expertise and start honing the people. As I moved towards more senior roles in management, the engineering in my brain has helped me make better decisions and that has made me better at leading people. At some point in their career, people have to decide if they want to go on the path of the expert or into the management route. Maybe in the future people might be able to do a bit of both and be flexible about it. Although I am still fond of and interested in tech and I am always looking for new angles to explore, the people side of it has captured my imagination.
In my role as the co-chair of the Institute for the Future of Work (IFOW), I am always looking for new angles to explore when it comes to technology but am also enthralled by the ways in which human intelligence can make a difference in Industry 4.0. Speaking of diversity of discipline, at the IFOW, I am one of the few engineers and we have experts from various walks of life –lawyers, trade union members, economists, investors, policy experts, etc.
Given the changes in the demand for skills, there are professionals who reinvent their careers every 10 years. People now have the opportunity and the motivation to switch their careers, get skilled in a different discipline and leverage their experiences from various industries
What would be your advice for people in the HR profession?
To an HR person, it is self-evident that they are aware of good work rather than just work. The more research we do, the more apparent it is that good work leads to good health, good economy and productivity. From an HR standpoint, it is being conscious of good work and not just work that is substantial business benefits in paying attention to the quality of work that they are offering to the people.
As a matter of fact, the Institute for the Future of Work has issued a Charter which basically includes 10 points that act as a framework for practice and policy-orientation in order to encourage business leaders and HR professionals to work towards protecting the components of good work, especially as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Employers can use the charter as a checklist which can be used to create a human-centered approach towards using technology, the right way. I believe that access to good work, fair pay, fair conditions, workplace equality, dignity of labor, autonomy to make decisions, wellbeing, receiving required support, employee participation, and guidance in continuous learning, are truly the key components of good work that will set us up for success in the impending ever-changing nature of the future of work.