Surviving the Digital Wave: How can organisations enable their employees to acquire new skills and remain relevant in the information age?

Organisations need to continuously exercise skilling and reskilling practices to embed relevant skills in their employees.

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Automation and other disruptive technologies transforming industries and subsequently displacing human skills are not new phenomena. Though many waves of automation have swept through the world, none so far have threatened to substitute human cognitive skills as much as the latest wave that is emerging in today’s digital era. As the widespread apprehension about machines replacing humans in many areas grows, the convergence of various digital technologies has heightened fears of massive job losses and unemployability over the next decade or two.

While some argue that robots and artificial intelligence (AI) remain a long way from completely taking over human jobs, routine manual labour continues to be replaced by machines at a rapid rate. This trend is accelerating as companies pursue increased speed, innovation and operational efficiency. Be it blue or white-collar jobs, employees across the board are losing out to their much sleeker, flexible and tireless non-human counterparts as computers get increasingly sophisticated at mastering complex tasks.

In contrast, even as employers are forced to retire from certain type of roles performed by humans, they face a significant shortage of skills that are required to operate the very machines behind the automation. On one hand, there are workers fearing for their jobs, and on the other, there are organisations struggling to maintain their technology edge due to lack of relevant talent. As it turns out, this gap between the requisite skills and those available can well be the silver lining in the cloud, reassuring worried staff and employers that they can embrace technology innovations in a mutually beneficial manner.

However, doing so will not be easy. Just as the labour upheavals in the past required a major revamp of education systems for making workers appropriately skilled for the technology age, reallocating existing human resources to new jobs will require committed efforts. Employers and employees will have to collaborate and recognise that humans and machines working together can achieve higher outputs — rather than seeing machines as mere cost-saving opportunities or job-replacement avenues.

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Reskilling employees

The workforce of the future will most definitely need to be technology savvy and be able to operate and control the automated processes and robots well. With most manual jobs set to go away, except for those that require complex communication and broad experiences, such as cooking or gardening, employees performing manual roles will require on-the-job training to reskill themselves and fit into higher skill brackets that are in demand. Beside ensuring jobs for workers, reskilling will also enable them to move up the value chain. It can even increase their compensation levels in accordance with the new roles they take up, resulting in a win-win situation for both employees and employers.

Focus on continuous learning

While immediate reskilling will take care of job certainty in the near future, as with any technology innovation there will come a next wave that may make a new skill irrelevant as well. In order to address this threat, organisations must focus on continuous learning. As output efficiency and cost control influence the adoption of machine intelligence, human performance will have to be measured more in terms of strategic decision-making capabilities and their ability to learn quickly.

Organisations should offer employees connected and intelligent training avenues that will keep them updated on innovations related to their roles, and help develop in synch with industry trends. As a result, workers can become more flexible, performing multifaceted roles that let them easily switch between jobs as per requirements. For employers, providing a continuous learning platform and incentivising employees to use it will result in lower cost of reskilling and training in the long run, than spending on one-time programmes post new implementations.

Training on creative and emotional intelligence

While the level of automation organisations can adopt will depend on their respective sectors, it is a common fact across the board that machines cannot replicate tasks that require what humans are naturally adept at — creativity, ideation, problem-solving, and emotional intelligence. Though automation will require humans to complement machines, it will free up more time for employees to focus on value-added work, where their human skills will be more in demand than their task-related ones.

In current employment scenarios, these skills are hardly valued or recognised as game changers. However, as the machine-man collaboration continuum increases, organisations must assist employees to improve and excel at their human skills as well, in tandem with developing other essential job skills.

Though AI and automation may eliminate millions of jobs, they will also result in the creation of millions of other jobs. It will be in the best interest of organisations to empower employees to reskill and continuously keep themselves updated. This will not only help them position themselves as responsible employers but also gain more agility and sustain technology-assisted growth.

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