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World Economic Forum 2018 - tech coalition steps up to re-skill the world for a 4IR economy

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan January 23, 2018
Tech industry leaders have pooled their skills and educational resources in a bid to improve prospects of workers in the 4IR economy.

It’s an ambitious goal - to reach one million people with resources and training opportunities by 2021.

That’s the mission statement coming out of a new cross-industry initiative formally launched at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos with the goal of tackling the challenges of re-skilling the global workforce for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

This is a major challenge. According to the WEF’s own analysis published last summer, one in four adults interviewed highlighted a mismatch between the skills they currently have and the ones that they perceive they’re going to need if they’re going to stay in work in an automated, AI-driven future.

This has led to the launch of SkillSET, a program driven by a coalition of technology industry leaders and supported by the WEF. Specifically SkillSET is built around a shared portal that people are able to use to both assess their current skill levels and also to tap into training and development to enhance and extend those.

The portal offers a tailored Digital Fitness Assessment, developed by PwC, to help users determine which coursework and programs would best fit their current skill set and learning goals. The number of such options will increase over time as more and more tech vendors provide input.

The founding partners of the initiative are Accenture, CA Technologies, Cisco Systems, Cognizant, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Infosys, Pegasystems, PwC, Salesforce, SAP and Tata Consultancy Services. SkillSET’s been launched under the auspices of The WEF IT Governors community, currently chaired by Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins.

At the launch in Davos, Robbins explained:

We all know that technology is going to permeate every job on the planet in the future, as well as technology will dislocate some jobs. Not only do we have a responsibility, but we have an opportunity to come together as a technology industry and create a platform where people can go and do a couple of things. Number one they can actually assess themselves on the platform and determine where we think their capabilities lie.

Michael Gregoire, CA CEO and the next IT Governors Chairman, added that the intention is not simply to train up a new generation of coders, but to look at the wider needs of how to succeed in a 4IR economy:

You have to think about life long learning, whether you’re a coder or a designer or a business analyst, whether you’re a network engineer or whether you aspire to be a sales professional. If you look at the way the team built the portal, you can start with a very simple skills assessment and get an idea of your technical literacy. We have eight different subject matters on the portal today, but there are going to be literally hundreds over time.

You can move away from coding altogether and really understand what are your business skills. Just because you have business skills, you’re going to need those skills in a technical environment. There’s a session in there on sales - how would you engage with customers, what are best practices? These are all things that an entry level person in tech who wanted to be a sales professional can get an opportunity to play with.

The initiative will initially target the US market, with plans to scale to other geographies, he added:

Pretty much every country is trying to digitize their citizens. This platform is not tied to any borders. You can log on to this platform if you’re in India, you’re in Luxembourg, you can be in Kansas and you’re going to have access to this content.

There are also ambitions to build private annd public sector partnerships, an aspect that Gregoire picked out as of particular importance:

The Department of Labor in the US has labor centers all across the country. Getting this portal into the hands of people who are looking for jobs in these regional centers. There’s almost $30 billion being applied across the EU on reskilling, a whole bunch of programs. This portal can be leading in showing people how quickly and easily they can be getting into the game of digital transformation.

Human project

There’s been a lot of downbeat predictions about the impact of robotics and automation in displacing existing jobs, which have led in turn to a wave of pessimism from many sources. This isn’t appropriate, argued SAP CEO Bill McDermott:

Optimism is one of the only free stimulants left in the world. I don’t see any reason not to take it and run with it. There are reasons why we really should be very optimistic.

In the economy, we’re in the middle of a customer-driven growth revolution. There have never been opportunities in the entire world like there are today. The consumer is on the move, is in multiple channels. Data has become the new steel with which you can build new business models on the fly. You can reach customers around the world, even if you’re a small business with not much funding.

If we use digital and embrace this change with automation, it can be a real help to job creation. Gartner said there would be $2.9 trillion in economic value created in AI alone by 2021.

He added that the human factor needs to be kept in mind:

You have to remember one thing about this world right now - machines can’t dream, but people do. There are a lot of people who are uninitiated in this modern economy and now is the chance to inititate them….We are in an era where it’s not just about Augmented Reality or Artificial Intelligence; it’s about Augmented Humanity. I like to think about this as much more a human exercise than an IT exercise.

And there’s potential to build on the skills focus and take the tech industry into a more united approach to wider issues, suggested Robbins. Riffing on the WEF 2018 theme of Creating a Shared Future in a Fracutured World, he argued:

In this fractured world, the business community and particualrly the tech community has a responsibility and an opportunity to work on some of these important issues, issues that extend beyond those directly connected to technology. We can leverage our ability to attack other problems in the world. In the US, in Silicon Valley, things like homelessness and affordable housing.

There’s a whole lot of issues out there that we not only have to care about, we also have the ability to leverage the innovation that we deliver on a day-to-day basis and actually go and attack some of these issues. More of us feel that way than not.

My take

What those founding partners have all done is to open up their own training and skills development programs and educational content and placed (at least some of) it into a common domain. It was this aspect that Robbins found the most impressive, although there’s clearly a potential commercial opportunity here as well as he admitted:

You have to understand we regard our content as creating brand preference out in the marketplace. We educate students because it’s the right thing to do, but we also know that they’ll have long term loyalty to us.

Or as Mrs Beaton’s Cookbook would have it:

First catch your rabbit.

Nevertheless, this is a potentially extremely powerful initiative with a welcome emphasis on skills that aren’t purely techie, but instead focus on the changing nature of ‘traditional’ roles in a digital economy. It’s to be hoped that other major players in the tech industry will be encouraged to participate. The founding roster of supporters is impressive, but there are some very notable absences that it would be good to correct as soon as possible.

One incentive for other tech companies to join in with the intitiative is to tap into a talent management resource. As Gregoire noted:

We have 500,000 open jobs in the US. We have 600,000 open IT jobs in Europe. A free market is going to push people into those opportunities. If you’re going to get certified in some of the technologies that we have, these are the technologies of some of the biggest companies in the world. These are the kind of skills that we need.

They’re also the kind of skills that the Fractured World needs to heal itself. This initiative is to be commended.

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