Skills: An ever-evolving toolkit

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Written by James McLeod on 6 May 2021 in Opinion
Opinion

James McLeod on why adaptability should replace expertise at work.

In the annals of history, technology has always helped us separate one era of humanity from another. But as opposed to changes in social consciousness or political upheaval, which often don’t have a specific root or cause, it’s easy to see the origin of technological innovations, and recognise the demonstrable and measurable impact their emergence has had on daily life.

Categorising history in this way isn’t always straightforward however, as it assumes that major technological developments and major socio-economic developments occur concurrently. In reality, the time difference between the two can be vast.

For example, traditional working ideologies such as the ‘input/output’ model, which are as old as the first Industrial Revolution, have carried over into the otherwise modern world of today.

The business models of contemporary organisations are often still based on this model, in which each component of a business – be it raw materials, operational infrastructure or even the employees themselves – has both a cost (input) and a value (output), despite it being over a century old.

It’s remained constant even as the implementation of new technologies, and change in the nature of work undertaken, has accelerated. Of course, longevity is by no means an inherently negative characteristic: as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. However, against a backdrop of relentless innovation, how much longer can we really rely on this historic working model?

The relentless pace of innovation, demand cycles for certain skills, or even specific job roles, can rise and fall within the space of a few years

Why specialisation is no longer a priority

Following the linear path of input/output, in recent decades workers have gradually decreased their costs and increased their value by honing particular skills into a specialisation. This made sense when demand for skills lasted at least as long as a person’s career, but constantly accelerating change means this is no longer the case.

Now, due to the relentless pace of innovation, demand cycles for certain skills, or even specific job roles, can rise and fall within the space of a few years. Moreover, with no sign that the pace of change will decelerate, we can only expect these timeframes to get shorter.

As a result, specialisation has given way to agility and adaptability as the two most valuable qualities for workers to exhibit, and this trend stands in clear defiance of the linear trajectory favoured by the input/output model.

A major shift is therefore needed in the perception of workers from being viewed as ‘assets’ with an inherent cost and value, toward a more humanistic approach predicated on constant learning and development.

Learning to embrace technological change

The traditional part of workers from education to retirement has often been fairly linear. Entering the workplace as an inexperienced youth and learning industry specific skills helped many to forge a career path and progress through the ranks on the back of that learning.

 

But instead of simply learning to work, modern generations must now incorporate a working to learn approach. Where once it was enough to rely on the skills and techniques learned at the beginning of your career, now it is more important than ever to continue that learning process and the speed of technological change means there will always be something new right around the corner.

In order to embrace the challenges and opportunities that technological change presents, employees should view their skillset as an ever-evolving toolbox – one that adapts to new demands and expands in accordance to change.

Creating an agile mindset

Whether it’s emerging technologies being implemented, or new applications and systems being put in place, the modern worker will have to be agile in order to progress in their career. Employees should be willing to diversify as they work their way up the ladder and accept that their role in ten years’ time may be entirely removed from their current one.

Unfortunately, many of the roles that exist today may see their functions fulfilled by automation and AI in years to come. But with this technology comes new opportunity – the need for human input is ever-present, meaning that new roles requiring existing skills will appear.

Allowing for fluidity in career progression will ensure that when opportunities present themselves, workers can smoothly transition into new roles without the daunting feeling that career change may have presented to past generations.

Adaptability is the key to future success

This advice is as important for employers as it is for employees. They too must alter their approach to career trajectory so they have the agility to adapt to the challenges that the will arise in the coming years. Rather than setting employees on a fixed path of progression, companies must be mindful of the fact that the needs of their business could change at any moment.

In order to change this approach, businesses should utilise technology to identify which skills will be more in-demand in future, allowing them to focus their efforts on augmenting roles and reskilling employees to meet future demands.

Businesses must also alter their approach to hiring new candidates to prioritise adaptability as a key trait. While expertise in one area can be a useful asset, the reality is the requirements of that role will likely shift drastically in just a few years’ time, meaning a more humanistic view of workforces based on learning and development is imperative.

Retraining workers to fulfil new roles is ultimately a more cost-effective and ethical model for businesses, and a shared focus on adaptability –  alongside learning and development – is critical to future-proof their workforces.

 

About the author

James McLeod is the VP of EMEA at Faethm AI

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