Article: Navigating a new skills economy - towards a future that adapts


Navigating a new skills economy - towards a future that adapts

The success of the future organizations will rest on how effectively they allow their internal and external talent to build workforce models and solve tasks together.
Navigating a new skills economy - towards a future that adapts

The history of work makes for a fascinating read. The shift from a hunting to an agrarian society took 150,000 years. Till about 200 years ago, before the Industrial Revolution made the shift from farms to factories, the economy evolved at a sure and leisurely pace. And then, acceleration hit the industrial economy on a global stage. Advanced engineering. The velocity of transportation. Open foreign currency exchange. Liberalized trade policies and communications. 50 years ago, the services-based economy took over. And, in an even lesser timeframe, technology strode across the work arena. 

Today, a host of new technologies – automation, analytics, robotics, artificial and cognitive intelligence, 3D printing, machine learning, and more – are poised to architect a new-skill economy. What is more, the impending transformations promise to make a huge impact in just half the time of a professional’s work career. The speed of impact is today’s fait accompli reality. It moves the conversation beyond predicting the future of work to actually navigating it. How can businesses, professionals and governments manage and gain from these changes? 

The regenerative nature of transformation

Without a doubt, past transformations have disrupted societies and economies. Even as they have displaced workers and professionals, they have also unerringly given rise to a new and unimagined employment potential. Hunters to farmers to factory workers to service and technology professionals, and now we have Tesla and Uber casting their nets for ‘automotive occupant engineers’, while Amazon calls for ‘culinary product developers’. Not to forget the ‘camera algorithm engineers’ that smart phone companies search for. In short, work, by any other name, will evolve just as promisingly. A recent Gartner report predicts that AI will help create 2.3 million jobs by 2020 even as it eliminates 1.8 million. 3D printing advancements will transform the face of manufacturing jobs. As will AI in healthcare. 

But it requires deliberate thinking, planning, and efforts by business leaders and policy makers in responding to the attendant potential and challenges, for the future of work goes broader and deeper. It is a ‘more-push-than-pull’ evolution of customers and talent. It needs alternative workforce arrangements for the freelance economy and a high velocity and compulsion of technology use. With this economic disruption poised to complete its cycle much ahead of our professionals’ retirement, organizations will need to equip and harness their talent faster, wider and deeper. For example, a German luxury auto maker recently announced they would look to replacing some of the robots on their production line with human talent. Reason? The increasing demand for customized auto options. They found that reprogramming robots was more expensive and took longer than leveraging the human capacity of nimble agility. 

Yes, the impact of the future workplace will be more complex than many anticipate it to be. 

From titles to tasks – the evolving nature of work

Move over, organizational structures. Take a bow, tasks and co-creation in execution — like Uber does for transportation, Airbnb for hospitality, and TaskRabbit for home projects. Enterprises will need to realize and acknowledge that the future of work will be more about execution and problem solving by harnessing diversely skilled and dispersed talent.

The success of the future organizations will rest on how effectively they allow their internal and external talent to build workforce models and solve tasks together.

Workforce structures should be nimble, agile, and resilient. They should toggle between self-forming teams that will be able to achieve their companies’ vision and culture.

Technology will be the prime mover of redesigning the work of the future. However, success in the disrupted workplace goes far beyond the technical skills. It demands differentiated behavioral competencies – finding deep meaning, adaptability and empathy – to name a critical few. And as much as globalization and the Internet will allow remote ‘tasking’ from anywhere in the world, it will equally demand an intimate understanding of customers, markets, and people. A heightened awareness and sensitivity to diverse cultures will thus be a huge ask in skills. 

From learning to staying relevant – the changing face of skilling

Knowledge and learning programs must seriously address the shift of work to a more task-based future. They will no longer be about achieving and amassing degrees as a one-time effort in the professionals’ early years. The question will be this – how can the workforce keep adding new capabilities all the time, in real-time, and just in time to meet the speed of change? 

Synchronizing the pace of innovation cycles with employees’ work lifecycles will be an exciting challenge and opportunity. Investing in, building expertise and continuously upskilling people, from recruitment to retirement – organizations will need to be both sprinters and marathon runners in the track of learning and development.

If innovation and relevance are the end objectives of learning, today’s business must shed its obsession about measuring the value of education in its paper qualification. The Singapore Public Service is an example of such progressive thinking. It allows diploma-holders to access civil service programs that till now were open to only degree-holders. Work ability, potential and performance should become the new criteria of competence.

Creativity and innovation actually place skill quality over educational qualifications — and this is a truth that will be the navigating compass for the future of work.

Get ready for a tomorrow where accelerated learning will happen across a longer period of time, mastery will assume multi-faceted versatility, and professionals will wear multi-career hats. Skilling programs must market the reality that it will be technical and operational skillsets that will add value to this disruptive economy. Like Germany does so well, we should learn to recognize and promote vocational and technical craftsmanship. 

From mainstream to alternative work arrangements

Beyond transforming the way work is done, the new skills economy has also revolutionized how talent is sourced. Crowdsourcing to design new and innovative ideas and systems, and solve problems has gained steady ground. Harvard and Princeton economists have estimated that 94 percent of net job growth in the US between 2005 and 2015 could be attributed to alternative work.  

Into the future, the gig economy will take newer nuances – driven by organizational pressure to convert fixed costs to variable ones, and by professionals’ excitement in seeking wider engagements and experiences to grow more rapidly in a multi-employer career. With the strong possibility of some of today’s gig work (drivers in mobility fleets, or basic data gathering projects) will be automated, opportunities for the alternate work professionals could well extend into more creative work performed by distributed collaborative teams. The gig economy could also be the answer to marginalized, unskilled, and underemployed workers as a means to find part-time productive work.

Leaders – the custodians of the skills economy

Creating a learning culture is a ‘now-or-never’ opportunity in a ‘change or perish’ moment of time today. Leaders of enterprises must prioritize skills by:

  • Promoting a learning culture: Start from the top, introduce modern learning and skilling technologies, and recognize and reward the learning professional
  • Empowering employees to be self-starting career developers: Engage, motivate, and inspire people to take charge of their learning and career development; provide the systems to make skilling intrinsic to employees’ workflows 
  • Keeping pace with modern skilling content and channels of delivery: Embrace new technologies to enable employees meet evolving needs

Redesigning work environments for differentiated structure, leadership and culture: To create and support new kinds of work that leverage distinct human capabilities such as curiosity, innovation, creative imagination, social and emotional intelligence, faster learning and accelerated performance upgrading is needed

This economy has ushered an era where the future enters today — one where mobility, adaptability and openness to continuous learning are the ‘open sesame’ passwords; and where the continuum of talent is expanding and becoming extremely diversified.

Businesses must purposefully and intentionally create systems, policies, and workflows to support people to navigate the seismic shifts that promise to be par for the course today. They will need to develop richer relationships in expanding business ecosystems. 

For success does not lie in holding aloft an agile few, but in ensuring that no one gets left behind. It is as much about preparing the future of work as it is about pre-empting work without a future. 

Businesses must purposefully and intentionally create systems, policies, and workflows to support people to navigate the seismic shifts that promise to be par for the course today. They will need to develop richer relationships in expanding business ecosystems

Topics: Skilling

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