The New Worker: Building the Skills Base for the Future Enterprise

If you think the future of work is coming, you’d be mistaken – it’s already here. Just ask SAP Africa’s head of education, Goutam Dev, who recently had a rather interesting interaction with his bank’s digital assistant. He called his bank with a question when the financial institution’s digital assistant got stuck in a response loop. Dev was forced to hang up on ‘her’. He promptly received an email apology, informing him that she was still learning and hoped to be of better service next time.

“The age of the digital worker truly is here,” he says.

For business, this demands that they innovate and always be open to change, says Rishal Hurbans, a solutions architect at Entelect. The organisations that will thrive are those that harness these changes for their benefit, not allowing traditional ways of thinking to become a hindrance to innovation. “Being open to rethinking the way we work, the value we add, and the vision we work towards is almost critical for the future of an organisation. Be part of the revolution, or be consumed by it.”

For Thabang Rapuleng, a director for Employment Practice at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, it will serve businesses well to develop a strategic HR function that is able to identify trends and skills gaps that are likely to arise in the future.

The reality is that the workplace of the not too distant future will look vastly different to the open plan offices we are familiar with today, says Lauren Timmer-Somer, head of marketing and technology services at Ricoh SA. “The workplace of the near future will see augmented and virtual realities, desk-based robots, drones, holograms, ear-pieces that allow direct brain-to-machine communications, smart desks, smart and self-driving cars (probably electric) and wearable technologies that go beyond watches. And, for the first time in history, a fourth generation, Generation Z, will also enter the workplace.”

Businesses that find success in this ever-evolving landscape are those that figure out how to bring together this complicated mix of people and new technologies.

For employees, this means thinking beyond the job you currently do, recreating your role and working with your natural talents to ensure you will still add value in the future, says business coach Jane Stevenson. “Failing that, a machine can do things quicker, with fewer errors and certainly no HR issues, so if you are not open to change, you should be worried.”

But even as technologies evolve, it is important to realise that machines can only do what we teach and program them to do, Rapuleng points out. “Technology should not be seen as a threat, it should rather be seen as a tool to assist employees at providing a service quicker, better and faster.” That said, one-dimensional employees will struggle as businesses seek people who possess a wider range of skills, with a particular focus on competencies that will help organisation remain competitive for years to come.

Kevin Hall, national sales manager at Elingo, advises that employees who are worried about losing their jobs ask themselves if a machine would ever be able to do the work they are currently doing. If the answer is yes, you need to come up with a way to do your job better and identify opportunities to grow. “Job security has always been an illusion, and we need to become work secure, not job secure. In doing so, any company out there will be able to see what you bring to the table.”

Workers should worry less about the possibility of losing current jobs and rather prime the next generation to follow studies and careers that better lend themselves to the technology revolution, adds Hurbans.

Technology is, in fact, a value-add that has fundamentally changed the way people interact in all aspects of life, notes Brian Gubbins, EOH business development manager. The employees that remain relevant in the world of digital business are the ones that understand the world we live in and find strategic ways to utilise technology to enhance, and add to the jobs they’re already doing. CLEVVA co-CEO Ryan Falkenberg agrees. It is essential for employees to stay updated with all the new tools and technologies that are relevant to their roles and keep tabs on the latest trends in the sector, he says. This will ensure they’re always informed about how their jobs are evolving and how these shifts could impact them.

Failing that, a machine can do things quicker, with fewer errors and certainly no HR issues, so if you are not open to change, you should be worried.

In line with this, Falkenberg stresses that this calls for a change in our current education systems, and, more specifically, a change in how we learn. “We need to teach people to do, not simply to know. Our current education system is biased towards memory and IQ, the capabilities most useful in consistently recalling and executing instructions. We need to change the system radically to move away from teaching people to follow instructions and towards finding out themselves how to do things so they can adapt and grow as their environment or needs do.”

These sentiments tie into Dr. Edward de Bono’s work around lateral thinking. He asserts that `thinking is our most basic human resource’, stressing that human beings need to capitalise on, and more effectively develop, our skills as thinkers. “We need to teach people to be adaptable and embrace change. Some jobs will be lost to machines, while others will leverage machines to do the heavy lifting,” says Dev.

Humans, robots side-by-side

When Enron, a US energy and utilities company, went bankrupt back in the early 2000s, a large legal team was put together to evaluate scores of unstructured emails related to the mysterious business failure. While it took the lawyers months to sift through this data during the original trial, years later, a smart machine-learning platform sorted through the same amount of information in under an hour. “The platform’s analysis also helped discover a number of connections that lawyers had missed the first time around, such as what other companies may have been involved, as well as what time of day and where suspicious activity had taken place,” says Dev. This isn’t an example of where machines are replacing humans, but illustrates how technologies can be used to handle time-consuming and repetitive tasks, freeing up our time to focus elsewhere.

We shouldn’t see it as one replacing the other, but rather, one complementing the other. It makes good business sense to hand over manual labour, tedious repetitive roles and basic decision-making to machines programmed to handle these tasks, says Hurbans. A machine will almost always perform better in jobs of this nature, he says. Where people become invaluable is in making strategic decisions to use the efficiencies gained via automation and new technologies to work smarter.

According to Kevin Hardy, MD for BT in Africa, their recent research showed a clear divide in the market among decision-makers around what impact disruptive technologies will have on the labour market. While a third of the survey participants who plan to implement AI and automation within the next two years believe it will create more jobs within their workplace, the same number predict that these technologies could, in fact, result in job losses in their organisation.

So, is a massive disruption on the cards, with many losing their jobs? Seems the verdict’s still out on that one.

From formal to freelance

In the not too distant future, many of us won’t be hired on a formal basis, we’ll be contracted to do project-specific work. Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr’s Thabang Rapuleng believes that formal employment relationships will become scarce as organisations are more willing to look for skills outside of their business when internal staff members don’t have the capacity.

Lyndy van den Barselaar, of ManpowerGroup SA, agrees. She asserts that the `Monday-Friday 9-5′ approach to working has moved on as more and more employees, and businesses, favour more flexible, non-traditional ways of working. “Today, a growing number of people is opting for alternative models over traditional, full-time, permanent roles. Part-time, contingent, contract, temporary, freelance, independent contractor, on demand online and platform working are on the rise.”

IQ, EQ and now, RQ

Firms of the future will need to add RQ (robotic intelligence quotient) to their selection criteria. In addition to IQ (intelligence quotient) to EQ (emotional intelligence), RQ and `machine management’ will emerge as a new r’esum’e skill set, according to Forrester Research.

While current job specifications may read, `Wanted: project management professional with agile software experience’, tomorrow’s posting will likely look a little something like this: `Facility with human-machine interactions required. Certifications preferred. Must be well versed in both artificial intelligence and physical robotic systems.’

A workforce spanning generations

According to Wayne Speechly, from Dimension Data, organisations will increasingly have to navigate a workforce that spans multiple generations. To do so successfully, they must:
•Understand each generation’s attitudes to work and their communication styles
•Leverage the strengths of each generation
•Support the values of each generation by having a dialogue around individual needs and preferences
•Encourage and enable mentoring between different generations
•Understand what motivates and hinders specific generations
•Move away from the norm and develop a new normal, which services their unique goals

This article was first published in the December 2017/January 2018 edition of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine. To read more, go to the Brainstorm website