Upskilling your workforce for the age of the machine

Earlier this year, Tesla’s Elon Musk admitted that an over-reliance on robotic automation and too few human workers is partly to blame for delays in manufacturing Tesla’s Model 3.

Musk’s comments provide a stark reminder that if we want to truly capitalise on automation’s potential, organisations must strive for balance. This means we must find an optimal combination of technology and people within a business – and accept that it may take several attempts and models to get it right. But where is the best place to start?

The importance of upskilling

As automation becomes an integral part of many business processes, the key to reaching its full potential is through the appropriate upskilling of the workforce. The term ‘upskilling’ typically applies to large-scale programmes designed to train and develop a workforce to deal with automation-driven change. It can involve the learning of new skills or technologies within a similar job, or it can take the form of redefining or complementing existing skills to shift to new types of jobs.

Encouragingly, there are a number of organisations which have already moved swiftly in this area. AT&T, the world’s largest telecommunications company, has set itself a target of investing 1 billion US dollars to reskill nearly half of its workforce – 100,000 employees globally – for new jobs by 2020. Similarly, the Singaporean government is investing around 1 billion US dollars annually until 2020 into initiatives such as student counselling, internships and mid-career learning.

To provide further insight into how a robust workforce upskilling strategy can impact the productivity potential of automation, the Capgemini Research Institute surveyed 800 executives and 1,200 employees, in supervisory and non-supervisory roles, from over 400 large organizations globally. It revealed that a surprising 58 per cent of organisations are failing to make upskilling a key part of their plans for automation, a warning sign that much more support and education is needed. Additionally, according to the recent study, organisations with a 50,000 strong workforce or more which have implemented a full-scale upskilling programme can expect to save about 90 million US dollars more per year than companies that do not.

So if your business is just getting started, or you’re worried it’s falling behind, there are the five key steps towards creating a successful upskilling strategy which will stand the test of time.

Assess your technology investments and their impact on the workforce

As a first step, take stock of the technology you have in place. You may be surprised that you can start to build a strategy from answering a few simple questions, such as: How will our technology strategy and investments change job families and in which parts of the organisation? What is the timeframe for this change? And how many job families will be created in the future?

From there, you’ll be able to map out and define what share of the workforce needs to be upskilled and how.

Define the skills you need and when you will need them

Once the impact of technology investments on the workforce has been visualised, you can then start to devise an upskilling strategy. Identify the core skills that underpin your organization’s core competencies, and also those that will continue to be required for non-core tasks. Both of these require a strategic approach and a long-term outlook.

You will also need to identify the workers with skills for handling non-core tasks that are likely to remain non-core. This may lead you to consider a flexible workforce with contract roles – but keep in mind that an over-reliance on this can stunt knowledge and skills development and leave your organisation without a skilled talent pool.

Make the upskilling programme a win-win for your people and the organisation

Any upskilling programs will be ineffective if employees fail to see value in them. Globally, over half (54 per cent) of junior-level employees described their experience as unsuccessful or only partially successful, predominantly because they failed to receive an opportunity to use their new skills.

Creating a programme that is seen as relevant and exciting is essential. Rethink and design the learning from the employee’s perspective, involve them into the design and pilot, and actually make learning an experience with an impact.

Align learning with organisational strategy

It’s no surprise that organisations which have already succeeded in scaling up their skilling programs display a greater unity of purpose in their leadership teams, with 57 per cent of those who are at the midway mark saying that senior leaders are aligned behind the automation vision.

Finding appropriate channels for communication is also key. In-person meetings cascading down the hierarchy, town halls, and roundtable discussions with representatives of specific groups are typically much more effective than impersonal communication via mails, videos, podcasts or posts on internal forums, especially if fears and concerns are involved.

Enable leaders to communicate effectively and manage change

The importance of good communication cannot be emphasised enough. Organizations that have evolved their upskilling initiative put a strong emphasis on top-down communication. At nearly 75 per cent of organisations where an upskilling initiative is underway, leadership frequently interacts with the workforce on the topic.

It’s also valuable to identify each individual impacted by automation and interact with them throughout the journey. This involves being very transparent about how directly or indirectly they are impacted, what this change means for them and how much time they have to make the change work.

Looking towards 2019

With the right steps in place, creating an upskilling strategy is an achievable business goal for 2019 which will enable you to make better use of the resources you already have, and help you plan more accurately for the future.

So what are you waiting for? Your business and employees will thank you for it.

The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.