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Re-skilling and up-skilling for the AI age - an organizational challenge demanding radical change

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett March 24, 2019
To deal effectively with the massive structural changes that the AI era will generate, a vast re-skilling of the workforce will become imperative – and learning how to learn will be key to success, according to presenters at a Future Talent event in London last week.

The deep structural changes expected to take place as we move into the Artificial Intelligence (AI) era will create the need for a mass up-skilling and re-skilling of the workforce.

In the same way that the move from an agrarian society to one framed by the Industrial Revolution led to a requirement for compulsory education provided by the state, the shift from a post-industrial to an information age will necessitate radical change too, according to Jonas Prising, chairman and chief executive of multinational staffing firm, Manpower Group. Speaking at the Changeboard Future Talent event in London last week, he said:

It’s about empowering the educationalists. People complain that the education system is not delivering, but the teachers aren’t at fault. The system requires institutional and societal change. Currently around 84% of organisations say they plan to re-skill and up-skill their workforce, so at the moment it’s the corporate sector leading the charge. But to succeed, they’ll need to do more than that – to ensure their people can cope with globalisation and technology, they’ll need to build a learning culture.

A key requirement for such learning cultures will be to get the balance right between “behavior and attitude, and technical skills”, believes Peter Coats, learning and development consultant at insurance firm Legal & General:

We need flexible problem-solvers, who are optimistic and don’t worry if things change…but while we, as employers, need to explain the development opportunities that exist for them - that is the scaffolding - each individual will have to take responsibility for building their own career too. The scaffolding isn’t just about formal courses though – it’s about all the different ways we can learn, including YouTube…There’s no one-size-fits-all any more.

This situation is being reflected in the kind of criteria that could prove useful when hiring high-performers, says Manpower’s Prising. Although in the past, IQ (Intelligence Quotient) was considered of primary importance, it was over time found to be a poor predictor of performance. As a result, soft skills in the form of EQ or emotional intelligence were added to the mix. But Prising indicates that another factor, which he calls the ‘learning quotient’, should now also be taken into consideration. He explains:

We now need to build the capability to understand if individuals can learn skills as it’s going to become increasingly important. This involves using LQ in a living process and recognising what skills need to be leveraged in an organisation to ensure success.

Learning isn’t static

In a leadership context, for example, Prising points out that while skills such as strategic thinking, communication and being able to engage and energise others are as important as they ever were, digital literacy and knowing enough about digital technology to ask pertinent questions are becoming equally vital. But in his view, creating a more diverse workforce – and boardroom – is just as crucial too:

Learning isn’t static, so we need diversity. Diversity is important as it empowers business strategy to adjust to a learning environment.

Matthew Syed, psychologist and author of various books on the science of high performance, agreed:

People ask why innovation isn’t happening, but it’s because diversity gets narrower and narrower as you reach the boardroom…..But in a future world in which reinvention will be at a premium, we’re going to need more flexibility and agility in thinking.

Dr Nigel Spencer, senior client director at the Said Business School at Oxford University, is another believer that taking a broad view of things is a useful asset, albeit at a more personal level:

These days, I need agility and a breadth of skillset, to be an ongoing learner and to reinvent myself over the course of 40 years. So I need to be a ‘poly-technic’ professional – which is based on ‘poly’ the Greek word for ‘many’, and ‘technic’, which means ‘skills’ – or in other words, a ‘many-skilled’ worker.

To gain these skills will, in many instances, involve learning on the job, which is where the value of having a high LQ, or ability to learn, comes in. But another important consideration in this context is developing a ‘growth’ rather than ‘fixed mindset’.

Up-skilling and re-skilling

An individual with a fixed mindset believes that high performance is based on talent, which is purely the result of natural ability. Someone with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believes that talent alone is not enough, but that constant self-evaluation is necessary to learn from your mistakes and improve performance in the process.

An example of fixed mindset leaders, psychologist Syed pointed out, would be people who surround themselves with ‘yes’ men and women, who act as “echo chambers” rather than providing any kind of challenge to their views or self-image. An example of a growth mindset, meanwhile, would be Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, he said. Nadella, who joined the software giant in 2014 and has quietly taken it back to being one of the top three most highly valued companies in the world, initially described his executive team as labouring under a fixed mindset:

Satya said they all wanted to look like the smartest person in the room and so didn’t want to hear about any mistakes. They’d become complacent, which stops the bottom up flow of innovation, and so the culture needed to change from being an organisation of know-it-alls to one of ‘learn-it-alls’….He told them ‘we need to self-reflect because we’re not good at collaboration and we’re defensive of new views’ – and that’s always a good starting point.

But whatever their approach, Manpower’s Prising believes that employers are going to have to grasp the re-skilling nettle sooner rather than later, and whether they want to or not:

To augment human capabilities, we need to upskill at scale, especially in rural areas that are getting left behind. It’s those mid-level skills that will be disappear and be replaced by something new. If you think about things in 1910, for example, 70% of jobs were in agriculture, manufacturing or mining, but now 100 years later, it’s only 14%.

While it is impossible from this vantage point to predict what the jobs of the future will look like, it still is not an excuse for employers to do nothing. Instead the focus should be on hiring individuals with a high LQ, creating an appropriate learning culture and providing suitable opportunities to learn. As Prising concludes:

It’ll be messy for a while, but we’ll be OK. That’s not to say there won’t be bumps along the road and there will be dislocation. But our focus needs to be on up-skilling and re-skilling, not having 50% of the population on a Basic Income – and I don’t believe it will play out that way.

My take

While governments and employers around the world have been playing ping-pong with the idea of who should take responsibility for producing ‘business-ready’ talent for years, Prising appears to be throwing down the gauntlet to the private sector to take their responsibilities more seriously, not only at the corporate level but at the wider societal level too. While survey after survey indicate that, while Millennials in particular value personal development opportunities highly, they also believe that employers fall very short in meeting their requirements. So it would appear that there is still an awful lot of work to be done.

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