For CEOs who are dealing with integrating disruptive technology solutions into their business ecosystems, the issues go well beyond the tech itself: Training and reskilling an organization’s workforce to operate new solutions can be extremely challenging.
“In the rarefied air of Route 128 and Silicon Valley, they don’t consider the fact that learning a new technology and driving a new work flow is difficult on a good day,” says Paul Kusserow, CEO of the Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based home healthcare company Amedisys who is currently struggling to get his company’s operators to adapt to the benefits of wearable monitoring devices. “But to drive it down to places where real America works and plays and is satisfied with how things are going is much harder. New technology is always a trade-off.”
This human resources hurdle is one of the biggest global challenges of the digital era. A recent BMC Software survey of more than 3,200 office workers in 12 countries showed that an average of 40% in each country fear they won’t be able to keep up with the rate of change required by digital business. And 88% placed the responsibility to create innovative cultures—in other words, the solution to this problem—on their employers.
“It’s imperative for all companies, and all societies, to address this, because we are going through a seismic shift in the nature of work,” says Paul Appleby, executive vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for Houston-based BMC. “And it’s not just about new entrants, but also about the existing workforce.”
Many workers fear being replaced by robotic devices, systems or processes. Indeed, disruptive technologies already have obviated millions of blue- and white-collar jobs, and are poised to eliminate many millions more. CEOs are tasked with finding ways to transition employees to more advanced jobs requiring higher-level skill sets.
“40% OF SURVEY RESPONDENTS In each country fear they won’t be able to keep up with the rate of change required by digital business.”
“The jobs that remain will be much higher-value-added jobs,” says David Poole, CEO of Symphony Ventures, which helps big companies harness automation. “They’ll use the capabilities of humans to the fullest, whereas today much of what they do is repetitive. We’re taking the robot out of the human and eliminating the robotic nature of work.”
At its manufacturing and distribution centers around the world, for instance, Proctor & Gamble is connecting “smart tools with smarter employees and with systems that work without paper and touches,” explains Liz Fikes, director of product supply engineering at P&G’s Corporate Engineering Technology Labs. “Then you get employees who are super excited about digitization and automation.”
Building the skill levels of current employees requires expanding in-house training beyond the traditional one-day off-site approach. Ed Hess, a business professor at the University of Virginia, foresees corporate human resources being transformed into human development. “Companies will have to do their own training,” he says. “HR has to become ‘HD’ because the education system can’t produce what companies need.”
“Multiplicity,” in which diverse groups of people and machines work together to solve problems, is an approach that already underlies everyday automated tasks ranging from movie recommendations on Netflix to automobile responses in self-driving, says Ken Goldberg, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the People and Robots Initiative. “Rather than discourage the human workers of the world, this new frontier has the potential to empower them,” he says.
“Rather than discourage human workers, this new frontier has the potential to empower them.”
Indeed, a growing number of workers, especially millennials, relish the change and challenge that comes when companies embrace technological disruption—including disrupting their own jobs and careers. “They want the ability to test new technologies and work environments and the multidisciplinary nature of work now,” says Roger Park, Innovation & Strategy lead for EY. “So we’re continuously hiring, onboarding and training millennials, and connecting them into deep pools of experience across a lot of different disciplines. And that’s a key part of innovation.”
Still, employers increasingly run into a big roadblock: There aren’t enough technologically capable people available to fill the roles the disruptive age is opening up. Many are having to get creative. Jaguar Land Rover and Audi of America, for example, have helped U.S. dealers hire hundreds of military vets as dealership service technicians over the past few years.
Likewise, Rockwell Automation and Manpower recently joined forces to focus on training veterans reentering the workforce. They plan to “reskill” about 1,000 vets each year as a new breed of “advanced digital manufacturing” employees who can help fill out the ranks of available and capable new-age workers.
Others are working with undergraduates. GE, for instance, works with colleges in areas where it has plants, talking with professors to design curricula appropriate for the new jobs in its facilities. But even such efforts aren’t enough, largely because, as Appleby sees it, “the nature of education hasn’t changed since the Industrial Age.”
Enlightened CEOs and politicians are also trying to help the education system adapt to the changing needs of employers. Oracle teamed up with Stanford University to fund DesignTech, a high school in Silicon Valley built around principles of technology-design thinking and intended to help create the next generation of workers. Cisco launched a college scholarship program specifically for high school kids considering careers in cybersecurity.
In Arkansas, Governor Asa Hutchinson last year worked with big companies such as Walmart as well as small local tech employers to craft a tech-friendly curriculum bill that requires public high schools to count coding classes as a math credit toward graduation, among other steps.
“We need a strong contingent of kids coming out of our colleges so that we can continue to fuel the growth of our business,” says Richard Howe, CEO of Inuvo, a Little Rock-based software and data analytics outfit. “These initiatives have a big impact on us and the kind of people we’re hiring.”