Businesses need to ensure that their staff are ready to exploit the rapidly changing workplace. People need both education and training in order to have the skills and wellbeing needed to thrive and be productive. Companies should have learning strategies to be prepared for a successful future.
I was at school about 40 years ago. We were lucky to be an Open University computing centre, so had a computer terminal that was connected to a mainframe at the local university. I remember spending a lesson handwriting a computer programme. I cannot remember what it did, some relatively simple calculation. We walked into the computer room and stood around the terminal that sat, altar like, in the middle of the room. The teacher typed in the programme. The machine chuntered away and then started chattering as the teleprinter typed out the answer.
At the time it did not feel like a revolution, it seemed like a very complicated way to work out something very simple. We now know that computers have revolutionised how we live and work. And they are doing that in ways that were not predicted when we were standing around that terminal. The computer was designed to compute, to crunch numbers. No one could have predicted that it would manipulate text, communicate, store and manipulate images or control so many systems.
My school could not train me to use computers for the rest of my career, because no one knew how they would be used. Wordstar, the first commercial word-processing package was not produced until about 2 years later, in 1979. I hope to have 15 working years ahead of me… what will computers be doing for us then?
Businesses need to think about how much they are investing for the present and how much for the future.
It is accepted that the rise of new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and big data will radically revolutionise the world that we work in. What is unknown is how and when this will happen. We can speculate about how AI will change accountancy by spotting anomalies in big financial data in real time, or how it will alter teaching by marking assignments faster and more consistently than a human. But we cannot predict with any accuracy the nature and timing of the impact.
But we do know some things. Technology will impact most on people with mid-level skills. Over time the proportion of people in the workforce with high level skills has increased (over 40% since 1991) while the proportion of people with low level skills has also increased (nearly 10% over the same time). This is because it is relatively expensive to replace low level skills with automation. This has been at the cost of jobs with mid-level skills, which have seen a 10% decrease.
This trend is likely to continue. However, the definition of what counts as a mid-level skill will increase. Traditional high skill level jobs have been assisted by, but not replaced by, technology. Robotic surgery has enhanced surgery, but not replaced surgeons. This will change; as AI becomes more accurate, faster and cheaper at reading hospital scans it will replace radiologists. Professions such as teaching, accountancy, law will be impacted by advances in technology. At the lower end of the skill spectrum, many low-skill roles we now see carried out by humans may be lost as automation becomes cheaper.
Businesses will need people with the highest skill level, and those that can adapt to changing circumstances. They will need people with skills, such as creativity and empathy, that will be more difficult for technology to replace.
So, what is the solution? Businesses need to consider the difference between education and training.
Education or training?
Education is about equipping students with the skills for them to become independent learners and thinkers. Education is about ensuring that students can critically evaluate and apply new information or ideas. It is an investment for the long term.
Training is about equipping with the skills that we know are needed, normally immediately.
Businesses need their staff to have both training and education. We need surgeons who are skilled at operating today, but who can also adopt new advances. We need accountants who can do the accounts today, but are capable of adapting and harnessing the latest technology and telling organisations when and how to use it.
So what should businesses be doing?
In most businesses the most important asset are their people. Good people are in short supply, and for many that will limit success. In the late 1930s Bill Hewlett and David Packard knew that they wanted to be in electronics, but were uncertain what they would concentrate on. They found the brightest people that they thought would fit into the company and employed them. They did not know how they would use them, they trusted that there were things that they could do and that good people could adapt to whatever was asked of them. Much of the early success of Hewlett Packard was down to having better people than the other companies.
Where do these thoughts leave you?
When you recruit do you think too much about the discipline related skills. Is it better to have someone who is not a subject specialist but has the right attitudes and essential skills and is aligned with what you want to do? Or is it better to have a superb specialist with a lot of experience in the area, but lacking the soft skills and would be a bad fit for your company?
Sometimes you need a specialist. If you are running an engineering business, you may need someone that understands fluid mechanics! But otherwise you be better hiring the right person, and training them – for example at a local college. Most good people can acquire skills that they need.
How you help your workforce to develop new skills? Rather than hiring new people you could encourage your staff to learn the new skills they need. Do you want to use social media better? Do you want to bring your web design in house? Ask someone to learn those skills. Better still, have a culture of continual education and development in your organisation. That way will motivate your staff, and may encourage them bring new ideas and opportunities to your business.
Education and training is one way to look after your staff. More companies are looking at the wellbeing of their staff, in part to increase productivity and improve the working environment. Unilever have a programme aimed at improving the health, happiness and purpose of their employees. Analysis of their Lamplighter programme (which involves health interventions including training and education) indicates that for every €1 they spend on Lamplighter programmes, they see a return of €2.44.
What are the opportunities for you to use education to do this? I am taking a course at my local adult education College (Richmond and Hillcroft Adult Education College) where I am learning to draw – something that my education did not have room for. What are the benefits? In part it is good for my wellbeing, I find the classes are a form of mindfulness. The second is that I am learning new skills. The discipline specific drawing skills will not be of direct use to me. While I am quite pleased with what I have achieved, I am under no illusions that I will make a living as a freelance illustrator! However, I am learning to observe things closely, to spend time looking at objects and people and how they interact. This is something that is having an impact on my executive coaching work. It is making my mind work in different ways, making me more resilient, more open to new opportunities.
We also need continued education and training to ensure we make the best of the talent that is out there. A failing in our education system is that it assumes that people progress at a constant rate in a linear manner through the system. However, that does not reflect real life. Things happen to people, they develop at different rates, they take time to find what they are about. Adult education recognises this and gives people a second chance, actually often their first chance! This is vital for individuals, but also in a setting where talent is short is important for businesses.
So what is my take home message? The first is that businesses need to be thoughtful about the education and training that they provide. There will be a balance between long term education and short-term training. This will depend on the sector, the maturity and size of the business. But my suggestion should be that in today’s society the successful company will need a strategy to ensure the long-term development and learning of their people.
Declaration of interests
Andrew is a governor of RHACC and on the board of Health Education England. He is affiliated with a range of educational institutes and bodies. He is writing in a personal capacity.
An executive coach and consultant. Andrew has been held senior roles in universities. His interests include medical research and innovation, education, leadership and research ethics.
Web page: ajtg.co.uk
Blog page: andrewgeorgeblog.com
© 2019, Andrew George, all rights reserved
Published 4 November, 2019