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Businesses need to invest in new applied technology skills

Leadership & Governance

20 December 2018

Rapid advances in robotics and AI are causing many people to fear for the future of their jobs. But if American HRM consultant Alexandra Levit is to be believed, rather than people being replaced by machines, we will witness a new human/machine dynamic. However, organisations do need to be aware that this type of interaction calls for specific skills – and start taking the appropriate measures now.

There was a time when your average professional could afford to be all but computer-illiterate (unless, of course, they happened to work for a tech company or in an IT department). If you knew how to work a phone, you were good to go. This is virtually inconceivable in today’s world, where modern professionals are connected 24/7 to a complex digital infrastructure consisting of apps, search engines, social media, company databases and corporate intranets – whether it be to learn new things, collaborate with others, or solve problems. For Alexandra Levit, this is proof that people have gradually become more comfortable with, and adept at, using technology interfaces and – although they may not experience it as such – have learned to work together successfully with machines.

And that collaboration is only set to become closer in the future. Because contrary to common belief, Levit does not think that AI applications and robotics in organisations will replace humans as such. What people will find themselves needing to do, even more so than is already the case, is interact with technology that is more sophisticated than ever before.

Levit refers to the skills we need to navigate the digital world and use technology to achieve goals as ‘applied technology skills’ (ATS). As she writes in her book: ‘In other words, these are skills that integrate people, processes, data, and devices to understand how new technologies can effectively inform business strategy and react to unanticipated shifts in direction.’ The ability to analyse data is a clear example of an applied technology skill – a skill, Levit states, which has become vital in every industry and for every tactical or strategic role.

Accelerated pace

Levit is chair of the Career Advisory Board, an initiative of DeVry University in Downers Grove in the US state of Illinois. This institution recently investigated (1) to what extent companies take applied technology skills into consideration when hiring candidates for senior-level positions, and (2) how easy it is to find employees who possess these skills.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the businesses surveyed consider applied technology skills and experience a ‘competitive differentiator’. Although these skills are more important for some positions than for others, the businesses surveyed feel that all employees should have a general understanding of how to use software systems effectively and integrate them into their day-to-day work. The answer to the question of how hard or easy it is to find workers with ATS also comes as no surprise: it is a challenge. Levit attributes this to the fact that the subject of Information Technology has yet to become a standard part of the curriculum in many schools. Combined with the accelerated pace at which technology is evolving, this means that a large proportion of the workforce (the American workforce, in this case) will need to receive additional ATS training at some point in their careers.

‘ATS lens’

In her book Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future (Kogan Page, October 2018), the author shares plenty of advice and tips on how to discover untapped ATS talent within your own organisation and beyond. In Levit’s words: ‘Your goal should be to build a community of human workers who are comfortable with – instead of threatened by – technology advances.’

Levit states that organisations would do well to critically assess their current competency and skills training, as well as their recruitment and selection processes. As she explains, most companies aren’t yet considering prospective workers through an ‘ATS lens.’ This exposes them to certain risks, as many applied technology skills cannot be learned overnight.

Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future (Kogan Page, October 2018). As a partner at PeopleResults, Alexandra Levit helps Fortune 500 companies, government organisations and their leaders prepare for the future of work.

New types of work

The McKinsey Global Institute also does not believe that human workers will be replaced by robots and automation any time soon. In a recent report, McKinsey identified a set of 25 key workplace skills for the future in the US, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. Although their report shows that demand for technological and digital skills will have increased by 55% by 2030, we will also see a 24% rise in the demand for social and ‘emotional’ skills, including leadership and the ability to manage others. Areas where AI and robotics will have a negative impact include those types of work that require basic cognitive skills (such as data entry) and physical and manual skills (such as operating equipment and machinery). McKinsey expects demand in these areas to decline by 15% and 14%, respectively.

Eric Hazan, Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company in Paris and co-author of the report, warns that the shift in in-demand skills could further increase income inequality and widen the gap between those companies that can attract the best and the brightest and those that cannot. Hazan: ‘The keyword for the future will be “adaptability”. We are transitioning towards new types of work, new structures and new approaches. Businesses and their employees need to be open to these new trends and embrace them.’

Also read: ‘Digital transformation: walking the right path is crucial’