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Finding the workforce of the future - a conversation with Leighanne Levensaler, Workday

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy June 27, 2018
The composition of the workforce of the future is very unclear. Organizations are engaged in a variety of experiments but discovering a clear path is proving troublesome.

Leighanne Levensaler
Leighanne Levensaler, Workday (via the author)

Around about the time you see this, Leighanne Levensaler, managing director, Workday Ventures will be joined on stage by a Workday team presenting the findings of a joint research with Bloomberg.

The focus of the research is to point up the urgent need for collaboration between academia and business to solve for the current skills shortage.

As an indicator of the scale around this issue, the report says:

Only 38 percent of corporate respondents are actively collaborating to establish education-to-work pipelines. Just 38 percent of businesses are working with their academic counterparts to shape curriculum. Public and private universities are doing better, with 56 percent of survey respondents collaborating with business to build education-to-work pipelines, and 56 percent working with corporations to align skills with what business expects.

With that backdrop, I wanted to get Leighanne's view about where we are and what can be done beyond the work being encouraged between business and academia. First some context.

The yin and yang of the future workplace

The future of work is both exciting and terrifying. On the one hand, we see seismic shifts in job markets where whole classes of work are being displaced at breakneck speed. On the other hand, there are chronic shortages of the right kinds of skill for today's work requirements. The most significant concern though is whether 'we' as a society are close to understanding what will be required in the future, let alone the kinds of training needed.

A golden age now lost forever?

I look back to the post-Word War 2 era when you were indentured to follow either a profession that used your intellectual skills or you served an apprenticeship to learn a hands-on trade. That set you up for a lifetime of work. Whether that was a golden age or not is moot.

Today's reality is that 'we' as a society no longer value the apprenticeship model in the way we once did. More broadly, the formalities attached to an apprenticeship style model had all but fallen away (apart from a few examples like lawyering and medical training) in favor of 'on the job/as needed' training, often at the least possible cost and disruption to the business.

Leighanne sees a different reality. From where we are today, she argues that while there's plenty of commentary about the need for skills and reskilling plus lifelong learning, there is little by way of meaningful discussion about where the responsibilities lay.

There's not a lot of discussion about how we, as a community, proactively take steps to solve for this regardless of who is responsible. What are the action items we need to be taking now? What are the steps we need to be taking? In many cases, we are behind. And how do people get involved in a more systematic fashion?

That sounds like a big agenda but to narrow it down, Leighanne says that in her conversations with customers, the problem is not merely recognizing the skills issues, which have been widely aired. But also, customers are struggling to understand the roles that will be needed in the future. Customers say:

We can't see clearly how our digital transformation and digitization journeys are going to impact needs and restructure roles so therefore we can't see what skills are going to be needed and therefore it is hard for us to prepare for it.

It's not like any of this is new in the sense that preparing the workforce has been central to organizational development for many years. But the speed at which technology is impacting all of our lives is heightening the urgency with which customers need to come up with solutions.

Where we are today, learning is really left up to the individual. We need to put the infrastructure in place to support lifelong learning because, without that, we cannot be prepared. It's a shared responsibility between both the private and public sectors ensuring that we create opportunities for all.

Calls to action

Hence, the calls to action expressed by Leighanne in a recent blog post on the Workday site that can be summarized as follows:

  • Establish shared responsibility.
  • Have more productive conversations.
  • Build ethically.
  • Rethink education.

These are bold statements in which it is clear that Leighanne believes wholeheartedly. However, as she points out, there is no coordinated approach to solving these problems. Instead, she sees examples here and there citing, for instance, Walmart’s New Education Benefit Puts Cap and Gown Within Reach for Associates: Walmart’s partnership with Guild Education to provide a new associate education benefit and Upskilling the Workforce: Q&A with Jaime Fall, Director, UpSkill America at The Aspen Institute.

AT&T recognized that if it was to become the kind of multi-faceted business it needs to be in the 21st century then it needed to do a lot of reskilling and now has a program for 120,000 of its employees.

In all the confusion around skills and training, I was left wondering if what is needed is what I termed a 'Henry Ford Moment.' This is where one standout example of industrial change has such a profound influence that not only did Ford's mass production plant method impact the automotive industry, it influenced entire sectors for several generations.

Three things

I am of the belief that if we are to make significant progress, then we need to do three things. We need to:

  1. Recognize that the acquisition of technical skills is not some sort of thing where you pick up a Python How-To book and get on with it in an ad hoc manner. Instead, we have to recognize that the skills are no less professional than in any other profession. In other words, the teaching of topics around computer science needs nuance, and it needs professionalizing in its own right.
  2. Encourage creativity. We live in a so-called 'fail fast world,' and that's at the root of creativity. How many times did Edison experiment before he managed to perfect the carbon-filament light bulb? Thousands. Is the light bulb still being reinvented? Absolutely. As a side note, Edison established a large lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey that drove the development of close to 1,100 patents bearing the Edison name.
  3. Rethink collaboration in the context of attributes that need to be encouraged. Business has talked about collaboration as a desirable end state in the workplace ever since I can remember. Yet we routinely find that knowledge fiefdoms and hoarders are prevalent. If we are to be realistic about lifelong learning, then we don't merely need those who are capable of being taught, but also those who are willing to share and trust that in sharing, they are adding value. As I said on our call, we need to find 'Betty in the Corner' - the go-to person everyone loves, and discover what she knows, how her skills were acquired and why she chooses to share those with whoever walks past her desk. It's an attributional requirement not a skills issue.


As we concluded our call, Leighanne shared that she believes we are at a 'seminal moment' in history where there are unique opportunities to not simply acquire the skilled workforce needed but to bring meaningful change for the good of us all. That is a noble thought and, if she's right, then much needs to happen.

Leighanne also believes that the power and strength of people's networks will play a much more significant role in understanding how we build the most capable and valuable teams. I'm 100% with her on that one.

This will be a continuing dialog. The workplace of the future is far from clear but, as Leighanne says, unless we put stakes in the ground now, we won't have a workforce to do the things that need doing.

The future doesn't have to be one where you're trained as a barrister or barista with nothing much in between, but that is what training will lead to unless we recognize the challenges and get funds, effort, and ongoing commitment from all interested parties.

Solving for the disparities that exist between business and academia, which the research believes needs urgently bridging is another important component in that conversation. But things are hopeful:

In terms of actual collaboration, academic institutions are more likely to be collaborating with corporations than vice versa, particularly to establish education-to-work pipelines (56% academic vs. 38% corporate), and to shape curriculum (56% academic vs. 38% corporate).

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