Building the Skills for Workforce Agility in an Era of Digital Transformation
by Mark Marone | April 14, 2020
As technology transforms the workplace, soft skills will be critical for organizational agility. An agile workforce, where learning is an ongoing part of work, will have the adaptability and confidence to step up to new roles and tasks that require high levels of social or creative intelligence.
Along with trust in leadership and a good grasp of how the technology works, soft skills training is key to developing change agents and advocates who are extremely positive about the potential new technologies bring.
As the world of work continues to evolve at a rapid clip, technology’s growing influence across all aspects of business is adding a whole new variable to the mix. While digital transformation has been on the agenda for most industries in recent years, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting social distancing requirements have suddenly accelerated that process for everyone. Remote work is the new normal for a huge number of organizations today and, potentially, for the foreseeable future. At the same time, more businesses are looking at how they can use technology to automate previously labor-intensive processes and tasks — a shift that will likely endure beyond the current realities.
What does it take to compete effectively and get the advantages of new technologies in this ever-changing environment? Technical expertise and good decisions about where and how much to invest in the technology are vital. But there’s one other factor that’s becoming increasingly important for success in the era of digital transformation: organizational agility.
Technology’s impact on the workplace reaches far beyond the technical. In fact, experts agree that achieving the full potential of digital transformation depends on a successful partnership between humans and machines. That means people’s attitudes and expectations about new technologies, like artificial intelligence and automation, and their ability to be agile — to quickly adapt in the midst of ongoing change and disruption — will be pivotal.
At Dale Carnegie, we aren’t experts in AI and other new technologies, but we are experts in change management and developing the skills leaders and others will need to thrive in a workplace that is transforming. To help organizations prepare for this new era in business, we conducted a global survey in 2019 to explore people’s expectations for AI, in particular, and their own organization’s agility. We heard from more than 3,500 employees across roles, industries and company size, and the vast majority (82% worldwide) agree: AI will fundamentally change the way we work and live in the next 10 years.
AI, automation and many other technologies are already part of the equation in many organizations, and they’re only going to become more pervasive as time goes on. Every organization needs to be looking at what skills their people will require to adapt and succeed in this new world.
The Must-Have Soft Skills for the Future Workforce
Based on McKinsey estimates, 75 million to 375 million people may need to switch occupational categories and learn new skills as a result of advances in AI and automation. But contrary to what you might think, the growing skill requirements aren’t strictly in the STEM fields.
When we surveyed people about the type of skills they believe are most likely to be needed in the future to avoid job loss to AI, a resounding 73% told us the soft skills — communications skills, critical thinking, creativity, teamwork, emotional intelligence, leadership — will be the must-haves.
The reason is simple. While advances are made every day, current thinking is that machines still aren’t particularly good at replacing humans in areas that require high levels of social or creative intelligence. These are the areas where humans retain an advantage. An agile workforce, where learning is an ongoing part of work, will have the adaptability and confidence to step up to these “adjacent tasks” when other activities are automated or taken over by AI.
Anticipating New Roles and Skill Shifts
To understand what specific skills your workforce will need, experts at Accenture suggest focusing on three areas of transition:
- From traditional job descriptions to project-based work
- From operational work to insight-driven work
- From mono-skilled jobs to multi-skilled jobs
For example, PlainsCapital Bank, one of the largest independent banks in Texas, needed fewer human tellers as digital banking increased, so they combined the roles of teller, adviser and customer service agent into a “universal banker” role. This job requires less counting and processing and stronger interpersonal skills, problem-solving abilities and creativity, in addition to excellent knowledge of the full range of products to deliver the desired experience to their customers.
If technology is used in accounts payable/collections to help predict which invoices are likely to have issues (late payment, nonpayment), you can shift the role of the humans by building their communications and critical thinking skills and allowing them to spend more time with these clients to try to prevent negative outcomes.
Of course, these skill shifts will require trust in leadership to make the right decisions about implementing technology and a workforce that’s both open to change and confident in its ability to adapt
Building the Soft Skills Needed for Workplace Agility
The soft skills that are so critical to success in an environment of digital transformation also support two essential building blocks of organizational agility: social intelligence and resilience. As the pace of change continues to pick up, so will the need for trust, collaboration and risk-taking. Agile workplaces thrive on great teamwork, quick decision-making and a positive attitude that keeps you moving forward, even when the environment keeps shifting underfoot or things don’t go as planned.
By definition, agility requires a nimbleness and flexibility that can only be sustained through continual learning, coaching and development. The good news is, people are hungering for that opportunity to grow. Nearly 7 in 10 respondents in our study said that getting additional training would be very or extremely important to avoid losing their job given technological advancements in the workplace. And 64% are looking for on-the-job or other training to be offered by their employer.
Agile organizations need everyone to serve as change agents, not reluctant implementers or outright resisters who need to be dragged along. Fortunately, there’s a clear formula for developing more of these change agents in your organization. Respondents in our study who said they:
- trust their leaders,
- have a good grasp of how the technology works and
- have received training in the past three years on one or more of the above soft skills
were three times more likely than all others to be extremely positive about the potential for new technologies. They’re not only primed and ready for it, they’re your advocates, the ones who will help make the early wins happen and bring others on board to accelerate the change.
To learn more about the skills your organization needs to become more agile and thrive in the era of digital transformation, download our full report, The New Competitive Divide: Building the Foundation for Organizational Agility.
Mark Marone, PhD. is the director of research and thought leadership for Dale Carnegie and Associates where he is responsible for ongoing research into current issues facing leaders, employees and organizations world-wide. He publishes frequently on various topics including leadership, the employee/customer experience and sales. Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.