Annette Lowther is the director of human resources at Verizon Enterprise Solutions. Opinions are the author's own.
We are entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution — an era of technology-led disruption and innovation, heralded by 5G and the promise of expansive connectivity, which is expected to unlock business and collaboration opportunities that we can't yet imagine. New technologies will drive change in existing industries and prompt new ones to emerge; 50 years ago, could we have imagined the 3D printing industry or mainstream autonomous vehicles? But in this time of unprecedented change, there remains a major challenge for businesses: Where will they find the skill and talent they need to make these opportunities a reality?
Advancing the world through digital connectivity
The Fourth Industrial Revolution will be defined by emerging megatrends that have been accelerated by digital connectivity. 5G and edge computing enabling technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), advanced robotics, autonomous vehicles, virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR), 3D printing and the Internet of Things are already shaping the way we live and sparking a seismic shift for the future.
The processing power of these technologies alone offers immense possibilities for everyday people, businesses and governments. Like any era of radical transformation, however, the Fourth Industrial Revolution also presents challenges and hard questions. What does advanced automation mean for the human workforce? Where will we find the VR, robotics and AI experts we need to power the future?
The skills needed for tomorrow’s workforce are not readily taught in school today. A large proportion of the workforce will need to be retrained and redeployed to staff the jobs of the future. We need to figure out how to turn customer service representatives into coders. Businesses must look differently at how we approach recruitment and talent management, as well as invest in the continued professional development of employees. If there aren’t enough people with the skills we need, then we need to create them. This will require that both the education and private sectors come together and commit to reskilling and promoting lifelong learning — or we will fail.
There are several strategies that businesses and organizations should embrace to help adapt to and succeed in this fast-changing world.
Diversity equals success
It’s almost a universally acknowledged fact that improving workforce diversity — particularly gender diversity — is a business imperative. Statistics show that girls typically outperform boys at school and university, yet this success does not translate into equal presence in the workforce, especially at senior levels of business and across STEM-related fields.
All companies must work toward a diverse, gender- and age-balanced workforce. It’s critical to their success as the emergence of new technology not only dramatically changes how, where, and with whom the business is conducted, but also changes the skillsets required to conduct business.
In a global marketplace, a diverse workforce helps you to better understand your customers and reflect the communities where you live and work. Committing to authentic representation also means accessing a wider pool of thoughts and ideas that can strengthen performance. Studies have shown that increasing diversity improves innovation and financial performance. As the digital economy continues to grow, competition will only increase, and the businesses that have balanced the scales will reap incremental benefits critical to their bottom line.
Reskilling for success
The second key consideration is reskilling. If we can’t recruit the skills we need, we need to develop them ourselves. The organizations that embrace lifelong learning and invest in professional development strategies will be best positioned for success. Businesses need to continue to promote a culture of learning that will prepare employees for the digital economy. In the longer term, we also need to build agility — the ability for our employees to flex and grow as our business does. Change can be unsettling and even disruptive. We need to ensure our employees feel valued as their world of work transforms.
Returning to the workforce
Finally, businesses need to look at encouraging returners. All around the globe, there is a huge untapped pool of people who have left the workplace for family or social reasons. Developing returner policies is vital to retaining investments already made in our people. Companies should focus on the transferability of skills, learn how to reap the benefit of real-life experience, and recognize that everyone can learn new skills — not just graduates.
Adapting to the digital world
Today, the digital economy is the economy; it makes new business models possible and enables new ways to interact and engage with customers. But the digital economy is inherently different from what came before. Many established companies have roots in the last century, and the corporate world is still primarily defined by the baby boomers — a group which entered the workforce before mobile phones, personal computers and the Internet even existed.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a time of not only unprecedented change but also unparalleled opportunity if businesses can leverage workforces wisely. Actively helping displaced workers transition to new roles ahead of future demands will help companies keep pace with emerging trends and navigate new terrain with greater ease. And, looking beyond our walls, upskilling is a critical measure of success for sustained economic and social growth. When you keep the world working and contributing, that’s when we all win.
We need to work together to create lasting and profound change. We need HR teams to understand the benefits of diversity at all levels, eliminate systemic unconscious or implicit bias, and provide developmentally-challenging assignments — early and often — to facilitate continued professional growth. We need to create office spaces that are welcoming for all generations. We need IT teams to give technology options to suit different working styles. We need business leaders to ensure that all of this is a priority now, rather than a far-reaching goal for the future