Learn how to respond to the effects of disruptive technology on the workplace and discover how leadership development needs to re-focus on the whole workforce.
It’s hard to exaggerate the impact automation and artificial intelligence will have in the workplace. Robotic automation will eliminate 15 million jobs from the United Kingdom economy in the next 20 years, according to The Bank of England. Meanwhile, in the US, Forrester anticipates a 7% net loss of jobs by 2025 as a result of cognitive technologies.
These are stark figures, but the detail is more subtle. Cognitive technologies won’t replace whole jobs, but they will replace tasks, helping human workers to do things more quickly and efficiently. This means, to capitalise fully on the opportunities, organisations will need to make a fundamental reappraisal of how they do things. This includes redesigning processes from end to end so that they can be executed by human and digital labour working in tandem. The future organisation and job descriptions will look very different.
For many business leaders, transformation like this is an anathema. Many have achieved career success by steering the organisation safely towards clear goals and will be reluctant to risk all for a future that is still only taking shape. The truth is they have no choice. In every sector, entrepreneurs are finding new ways to use automation to challenge existing business models and knock established organisations off the top spot. Leaders that resist change will find their organisations marooned and eventually irrelevant.
Meanwhile the outlook for the workforce is just as daunting. In one version of the future, cognitive technologies create new jobs and enhance human skills and expertise. In an alternative version, automation decimates hundreds of millions of jobs. It is quite possible that both will be true. So for many workers ‘automation anxiety’ is a very real phenomenon.
This fear poses difficult ethical questions and tough challenges for leaders. How can they ask workers to be involved in introducing technologies that could destroy their own or their colleagues’ jobs? What’s the right approach to take in terms of retraining, redeployment or compensation? And how can the organisation win employees’ trust that it will act ethically and responsibly?
It’s fast becoming clear that the leadership challenges around automation are not so much about the technologies themselves, but about the scale and speed of the change they will bring. The cliché is correct: change is now a constant, with each successive wave following more closely behind the one before. How well does your current strategy prepare people to lead successfully in this turbulent environment?
The chances are that your leadership development strategy is focused on a select band – senior executives, the top management team and emerging talent, with the skills to take the organisation from one strategic position to the next. This type of clear, ordered progress is already on the way out. As the future of whole organisations and whole workforces are thrown up in the air, a new style of leadership is required.
Dramatic change driven by cognitive technologies means the focus of leadership development needs to extend beyond the top team. Yes – senior leaders will still need to be able to lead change effectively and inspire others to follow. But leadership development also needs to become about enabling every member of the workforce to self-manage and work effectively with colleagues through change. The organisation will need a workforce with the confidence to embrace change, not a workforce that resists change at every turn.
Across the workplace, emotional intelligence – communication, empathy and the ability to build rapport – will take on a new importance. These are precisely the skills that robots can’t (yet) replicate. Employees that develop them successfully will become increasingly valuable in a workplace where digital and human labour work side by side.
Most UK CEOs already know they need to develop their own skills to meet the challenge of their changing roles. Our CEO survey shows that, in the past year, 80% had attended a course. Yet not all have recognised the speed of the change underway or the new skills this will demand of their employees. Less than half (42%) had any plans to invest in new workforce training over the next three years, except to maintain current business needs.
In a world where change is accelerating every year, three years is an infinity. The world will have moved on and businesses that don’t move with it – and equip their workforces to make the journey – will get left behind. The organisations that thrive will be those that invest in making their whole workforce – leaders and employees – ready to meet the change.
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