Developing next generation skills in an era of disruption: Are Sri Lankan HR managers doing enough?

Tuesday, 11 September 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Aubrey Joachim

Alongside the many global issues that abound – geo-political, socio-economic, technological innovation, etc. is another elephant in the room; the increasing skills shortage in an era of constant disruption. This is certainly a major problem in the developed first world and, undoubtedly an issue in the developing world from two perspectives which will be considered later in this article. 

In a developing country like Sri Lanka a huge responsibility lies on corporate managers – especially human resource (HR) managers, to address the issue which will have a significant impact on productivity – if it is not already doing so. In addition it will have a significant impact on Sri Lanka competing in the global marketplace with its products and services.

With the pace of disruption that is being seen across all areas of society, including the work space, the current skills and competencies of the workforce is fast becoming obsolete. 

The World Economic Forum reports that 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in new job types – that don’t exist today! A recent Big Four study in Australia concluded that the skills and competencies being taught in almost every university degree program today is very likely to be useless in the next 10 years. 

If this is the case in a first world environment, what then is the hope for the next level nations? In December 2017 the McKinsey Global Institute said that by 2030 up to 375 million people in the world may need to switch occupations and learn new skills.

Another recent McKinsey study which looked at the future of work with the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotics identified that roles such as predictable physical work, data processing, data collection, etc. are high on the list to disappear. At the other end of this scale roles that required stakeholder interactions, applying expertise and managing others were at low risk of obsolescence. 

One has only to look around to see the emergence of automated manufacturing, computerised logistics, etc. taking over predictable physical work. A US fast food chain came up with a robot to flip hamburgers – to an always perfectly prescribed outcome. Digital marketing and online shopping platforms are similarly disrupting the roles of merchandisers and salesmen.

An ongoing CIMA/CGMA research into the Future of Finance juxtaposed the McKinsey findings and the finance function which showed that across the finance value chain tasks such as data and information recording and reporting will be automated. Producing insight and questioning will be robotised. However the developing of solutions, having influence, and deploying solutions to have impact, will be the areas that human finance professionals will still be required to perform – at least in the foreseeable future. 

It is not therefore about collecting and processing data but instead ensuring the integrity of the data and using the data in different ways to influence and have impact. This shift is even being seen in the legal, medical, engineering and even media and journalism fields.

If such are the shifts that impact the world of work what are the skills that will be most required and how can these be developed? The World Economic Forum has identified the top 10 skills that will be needed by 2020: Complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgement and decision making, service orientation, negotiation, cognitive flexibility. Developing such skills will require a major shift in the way that humans are taught and assessed for the respective competencies. The days of rote learning to merely pass a pre-set examination are gone. Most of the skills can only be imparted and learned in a situational context and on-the-job training.

While the aforesaid will be the front line skills that deliver organisational value there will also be the need for technical skills that are driving the technological disruption taking place. The disruptive technologies are the likes of cognitive computing, in-memory computing, visualisation, process robotics, cloud computing, advanced analytics and blockchain. The skills and competencies to take these technologies to another level will also be in demand.

How do organisations overcome the challenges in this space of skills disruption? This is where managers in organisations – especially HR mangers – must be visionary and proactive if they are to keep their organisations ahead of the game. It is a strategic issue that must be considered alongside an organisation’s main game plan. A particular technological strategy or new business model will only succeed if an agile HR strategy is adopted – one where the organisation’s human assets are constantly developed to keep pace. 

Sri Lankan managers have traditionally expected their new employees to come fully equipped with a set of skills and competencies acquired through academic education or professional qualifications. For example CFOs expect a ‘qualified’ finance professional to walk in to the organisation job-ready. This is no longer the case. A young accountant green behind the ears will have to develop into the role in the organisation over time with the learning and development support provided by the organisation. 

Every job is unique in its context and even an employee moving into another role in the same organisation will have to learn new skills. This is more so when an employee is hired from another organisation for their ‘industry experience’ which has to be applied in an entirely different setting. Thus, in today’s context it is the ‘learn’, ‘unlearn’, ‘re-learn’ cycle that must be adopted.

Global organisations are taking the issue seriously. Spending on appropriate training and development is considered a value adding investment. Unfortunately Sri Lankan organisations are not spending enough on this important business necessity and often consider it a burden – or merely an employee reward. The result is below par organisational performance. This is the first perspective referred to at the beginning of this article.

The second perspective is even more challenging for developing nations – like Sri Lanka, and this is where the forces of globalisation come into play. In addressing their massive skills shortages developed nations are introducing skilled migration programs targeting the best and most relevant talent regardless of their origin. Thousands of highly skilled Indians, Chinese and East European migrants as well as other nationalities – including Sri Lankans, are filling the skills gaps in Australia, US and the UK among other countries. 

Thus the challenge for the developing countries is how to hold on to their valuable human assets. This is where managers in countries like Sri Lanka will be compelled to offer their highly skilled and valued employees benefits comparable with foreign corporates – not necessarily in monetary terms but even career pathways, etc. Some Sri Lankan global MNC’s have the advantage of offering their ‘stars’ global inter-company positions for experience and reward, thus extending their tenure. Local organisations – even flagship groups – are disadvantaged in this respect.

If there is one issue that must keep Sri Lanka CEOs, senior managers and HR managers awake at night employee skills has to be it! 

(The writer FCMA; CGMA is an Australian citizen and a past Global President of CIMA (UK). He is a global trainer and presenter and works with large organisations on finance transformation initiatives. He also runs public and in-house workshops in Sri Lanka.)