Beyond machines, businesses need talented people

In this era of digital disruption, it’s no surprise that Australians are worried about the impact digital transformation will have upon the workforce and job security

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From start-ups to multinationals, organisations are using technology in an innovation wave that is disrupting industries such as finance and banking, retail, hospitality, travel and government. But it’s not just the usual suspects such as Facebook and Twitter, or gig economy powerhouses such as Airbnb, Airtasker and Uber that are leading the digital charge.

Organisations across a multitude of industries are looking for innovative ways to use data and technology to improve services and revolutionise the customer experience. For instance, Commonwealth Bank has recently announced the testing of its own chatbot, using AI (artificial intelligence) to assist customers with more than 200 banking tasks.

However, in this era of digital disruption, it’s no surprise that Australians are worried about the impact digital transformation will have upon the workforce and job security. Fuelling these concerns are media stories and forecasts around how machines, AI and other digital technologies will take jobs away from humans. The boldest predictions being made by futurists claim that millions of jobs will be wiped out in the next few decades with rise of automation and digital technologies.

Yet, organisations should be optimistic about the opportunities for both machines and talent to engage with new AI platforms. While the digital era will rely on machines — perhaps more than ever — leading organisations will require talent pools that can thrive in an increasingly digitised economy. Navigating this shift will be one of the defining success criteria for leaders. Furthermore, as digital technologies create new business models, new revenue flows and new cost structures, industries and talent must adapt to the new structures, and not work against them.

Talent must drive the digital economy 

For talent to flourish in this period of digital upheaval, the speed of innovation, experimentation and collaboration in organisations must accelerate. The main driver of this innovation will not be technology, but talented people. Leveraging talent with digital capabilities is the key to preventing slow innovation cycles.

However, attracting and managing the people needed to enable this shift will be drastically different from previously tried-and-tested models. As new technologies will impact how knowledge work is organised, distributed and completed, the workforce of the future must adapt to this new reality.

As the next generation of job seekers comes with an unprecedented level of qualifications, competition amongst people and machines will be fierce. According to Adzuna, new graduates currently exceed job vacancies by 22 to 1 in Australia. A key challenge will be in ensuring future workers are trained with the skills they can use to work together collaboratively with machines and digital technology.

Cultivating a digitally-capable workforce

A recent study by Cognizant revealed a clear imperative for leaders to build a roster of digital skills to accelerate innovation. Key findings showed that 94 percent of executives believe a “moderate” or “severe” digital skills gap is preventing their organisations from reaching their digital future.

In order to foster a digitally-savvy workforce, rigid approaches to organisational management must also be replaced with more fluid, connected and nuanced organisations. Silos must be broken to improve knowledge flows and redraw organisational power structures. Many companies are now beginning to replace traditional and rigid organisational models with small, nimble clusters of talent that serve a particular market or niche. In late 2017, National Bank of Australia announced it would be hiring 35 new staff to its innovation hub, specifically to scale up experimentation with new products and services.

In order to stay ahead of the curve, workers do not need to be faster or cheaper than machines. Instead, organisations should focus on helping (and hiring) employees to develop, hone and capitalise on the capabilities that are uniquely human-focused and cannot be replicated by software. Such capabilities include collaboration, creativity, curiosity, constructive problem-solving, inventiveness and empathy.

As automation, AI and the rise of new digital platforms continue to transform business models and radically alter how work gets done, companies will be driven to merge people, processes and technologies together. Those companies that are unable to proactively combine digital tools, technologies and talent risk marginalisation and perceptions of irrelevancy amongst their customers.

Benjamin Pring is director at Centre for the Future of Work, Cognizant, and co-author of “What to Do When Machines Do Everything: How to Get Ahead in a World of AI, Algorithms, Bots, and Big Data”.

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