Exploring how the Future of Work will align technology and human skills for better solutions

There hasn’t been a more appropriate time to talk about the Future of Work and Future of Skills than current times. What were believed to be work patterns of the “future” changed literally overnight at astonishing speed, leaving neither time nor thought for preparation. From SMEs to Fortune 500s, organisations were frantically looking at how well they could adopt digital transformation to reshape the way their employees thought, worked, used technology and disrupted traditional roles.

However, one of the most frequent dilemmas consuming the minds of business leaders today is managing innovation and reskilling. Digital transformation has been in the works at many corporations but have skillsets really aligned with technological advancement? Are companies doing their best to prioritise employee experience alongside technological advancement so that work becomes a shared vision as against siloed outcomes? Human capital is the greatest asset that companies possess and any transformation that happens around it should be in the interest of people than technology.
Focusing on this growing trend, Propay Partners and EUROCHAM Malaysia co-hosted a virtual discussion titled “Creating Value through Future Skills” on April 23, 2021. Highlighting the importance of skill development in future-proofing organisations, the discussion was led by panelists Peter Bentley, Chief Commercial Officer, AON, and Monir Azzouzi, Vice President, People Experience & People Partner, Gojek. The event was attended by EUROCHAM CEO Sven Schneider as well as CHROs and C-suite leaders from across the HCM industry.
Manish Mehta, Co-founder and Business Director of Propay Partners, moderated the one-hour long session. In his opening remarks, Mehta emphasised how future-proofing organisations was becoming an evolutionary priority. “The future demands we create a circular economy – one that regenerates sustainably across large and small organisations. Even though we were initially reluctant, I think by now everyone has clearly adopted a mindset that’s open to “change”,” he said.

Predicting & Preparing for the Future
Panelist Peter Bentley, Chief Commercial Officer at AON, a global risk management, reinsurance brokerage and human capital consulting company, initiated the discussion by addressing one of the key issues facing the Future of Work. “The problem with the Future of Work is that it requires you to predict the future. Strategy consultants have made the future of work subject matter to things like, say, what we are going to be in 15 years’ time. They also built this perception that it’s a really expensive and exclusive exercise. But no strategy consultant predicted that COVID-19 was going to be the biggest disruptor of workforce change,” he said.

According to Bentley, understanding what one’s company has in the present context and building capabilities along the way helps build momentum and agility for the vital pivot at the vital time. A data evangelist, Bentley firmly believes that companies should invest more time and money into studying their people as they form a significant amount of the cost base for any company. “Spending more time understanding your people gives you a better understanding of the skills and capabilities available for the future and that's a vital part of the process,” he pointed out.
Panelist Monir Azzouzi, who apart from leading HR for all Tech & Platform talent at Gojek built his own digital as well as non-digital ventures and functions in Denmark and Malaysia back in the day, explained how technology stood to advance life and work without unleashing the “Age of Terminators” like common notion. Although a huge number of jobs are set to be displaced, he argued that what people should in effect expect is the “Age of Iron Man” where technology would be used to make life smoother and create even more jobs. While companies like Gojek, which are digital-born, operate in a very different way, traditional firms can do a lot more to stay on track, he observed.

“You need to be adaptable and more agile, regardless of what industry you’re in to prepare for the Future of Work. If companies understand the impact and how to make best use of 5G, Big Data and Cloud technologies, it could have a huge impact on the way they function and their success,” he said. He also pointed out how important employee experience was during the process. “We need to make sure that people touch and feel and see what the Future of Work really is about. Creating the right employee experience not only makes sure we attract and retain the right employees, but also helps them get a better understanding of the products and gets them up to speed faster.”

Blending Hard Skills & Human Skills
Bentley, who has built two digital platforms – one at Aon and another at a global investment company - is also the Global Practice Leader for the Future of Work at Aon. He is closely associated with developing roadmaps that support workforce change. One of his key responsibilities is to ensure alignment of existing skills with creation of new capabilities. “A lot of the conversation gets dominated around hard skills,’ he pointed out, adding that a lot of banks and their CEOs describe their desire to be “tech firms with a banking licence”. “They want to hire developers, data scientists and engineers while saying things like Python and R, not even knowing what they're talking about. Because technology skills are in such short supply, we tend to focus on hard skills quite often,” he explained.
Examining it as a supply and demand issue, Bentley emphasised the role of ‘human’ skills or soft skills as skills most of us have in some shape or form. “Jack Ma always says - why would you try and run as fast as a car? Likewise, you shouldn't actually over-rotate on hard skills. It should actually be the human thing that makes us different and differentiated. I once had a client who wanted to get rid of half his salespeople just to hire half as many data scientists. I asked him what his data scientists were going to do. Yes, data scientists are translators, they need data to be able to extrapolate insights from, but they also need someone to sit next to them to point them in that direction,” he added.

Seconding him, Azzouzi also had a similar take. “Without hard skills, companies can’t survive. But winning the competition depends on your soft skills,” he noted. Referring to upskilling, Azzouzi observed that a lot of departments didn’t know they had to upskill because of the sheer safety their jobs projected. “For example, accountants often believe they have a gift from God. Everyone needs accountants. Who doesn’t? I remember it was really hard for us to change their mindset. Research shows that their jobs will be automated soon,” he said.
Some of the strategies he adopted to enlighten such talents were disruption, inspiration and elevation. “You need to distract them and pull the carpet beneath their feet. They need to know that they won’t be able to keep their jobs if they didn’t change or upskill themselves. The next thing is to inspire them by showing them other people in their office who’ve undergone upskilling and showing them visible results of their efforts. The third step is to elevate them, and here, the company can play a big part. Upskilling needs a bit of handholding and training, especially technical training, as it plays a huge role in creating awareness.”

The Digital & Purposeful Journey
A lot of companies have embarked on digital transformation as a means to counter the challenges of the future and ease work processes. But what happens after? What’s the endpoint of the process? None, says Bentley. “Digital transformation is a journey, a constant evolution with an ongoing process. Some companies build fancy websites and use technology, but in reality, digital transformation is a mindset, not technology. It’s how we rethink and re-engage with our clients,” he pointed out. Giving numerous analogies, Bentley emphasised that digital transformation wasn’t about the technology used, but the purpose it instilled in people.

Azzouzi, through his experiences from technology companies like Gojek and Maxis, feels that agile mindsets push purpose farther from profits to impact the millions of lives companies serve. “At Maxis I’ve seldom heard the CEO talk about profit and revenue. He was talking about the purpose of where we want to end, how we want to help our customers and so forth. The same goes with Gojek. When the pandemic hit Indonesia, we ended up giving the entire bonus meant for the employees to our driver partners. Our motorcyclists and merchants needed it more than us because we still had our jobs,” he said.
Bentley, who has overseen digital transformation quite a number of times over his 20 years in the industry, asserted that the shift to the digital isn’t determined by technology per se. “Technology is a red herring, the skills and capabilities only enable change, it doesn’t drive it. Your real ability to change is either empowered or limited by your people. If they don’t have the right mindset to change, then it’s difficult.” Bentley also noted that firms should have a uniform journey, not isolated strides by their departments. “HR itself in many instances is fragmented. HR has an incredible amount of data. If it were all aggregated and used in a collaborative way, it would be incredibly powerful. So, I think leaders need to collaborate more often. I think they're seen as competing entities because that was the old Industry 3.0 approach to doing things. I think we need to change that,” he added.
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