Business Today

Digital to Give an Edge

Policymakers, regulators and industries must collectively invest in development of new agile learners by improving education and training systems
S Ramadorai | Print Edition: February 9, 2020
Digital to Give an Edge
Illustration by Raj Verma

The world has already entered an exciting and unprecedented phase in technology - with the pace of change and innovation continuing to accelerate. Predicting how the future will play out is difficult, but one can make some educated guesses. To get a sense of how technology will change over the next decade, connecting the dots on how technology has evolved over the last decade could provide some cues. What is certain is that we are in a period of unprecedented convergence and inter-disciplinary cross-fertilisation of what we might think are disconnected fields.

India is predicted to be the second largest economy by 2050 and is expected to sustain the leadership position as the fastest growing economy in the world. Industry and services sectors are major growth sectors driving the economy. The demographic dividend is expected to transform India into the largest pool of global human capital. The strong policy push under the Skill India Mission and reforms in labour laws would gradually alter the untrained informal workforce into a trained formal workforce. A series of global megatrends such as rapid urbanisation, demographic shifts, changes in global economic power, political shifts and technology are influencing the way business is run.

India, too, is witnessing a fundamental transformation in how work is carried out. Two distinct advantages available are low labour cost and a rich talent pool, which augment the country's global competitiveness as a knowledge-based economy. Education and skill training are both strategic necessities that will deliver employment-enhancing capabilities, which will increase productivity. India has been a front-runner in various avenues, and the government has established various measures to increase the employability of the youths. But the current skill ecosystem needs to be re-engineered to cater to the evolving growth story and demands of Industry 4.0.

The Industry is focusing on new age technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, Internet of Things, and 3D printing. We as a society should have a clear view of what the future is and what our own actions will look like. In addition, we need to think about India's pivotal role in pushing for educational reforms and bringing about a radical transformation in the mind-set of the youth through proactive interventions, erasing any social stigma that may be attached to vocational training programmes.

Digital First

Digital technologies are defining business and are an active driver of competitive advantage, business models and even business viability. We have seen disruptive new business models emerge, based purely on technology, owning no assets whatsoever and yet posing a serious challenge to long-established incumbents. These fully virtual entities have used digital technologies to set very high standards in terms of the customer experience using technology, and have fundamentally changed the equation between business and technology. Historically, technology was an enabler of business and a source of efficiency. The next few decades will witness another similar technology revolution; this time, driven by advancements in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning. With a rapid increase in connected devices over the years - expected to reach one trillion by 2025 - technologies like IoT and Big Data analytics will be deployed to improve the quality and productivity of life, society and industries.

Due to proliferation of smartphones and pervasive connectivity, provisioning public services through mobiles will empower citizens to access services through an 'Anywhere Anytime Anyhow' paradigm and tremendously increase service outreach. Big Data coupled with AI technologies will enable the government to derive deep and sharp insights from multiple sources of huge data and create specific interventions based on these insights.

New Skill Sets

Industries that are part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution recognise the need to develop a holistic strategy. Organisations need to build a workforce that understands the culture and dynamics of the company, the product as well as the industry. As the workforce embraces the change and focuses on acquiring relevant skills for the future, it will lead to an increase in both efficiency and productivity. It is now clear that automation will result in a major disruption in the way work is getting done. Those workers who perform tasks that cannot be automated will be highly valued, and that means creativity, innovation, imagination and design skills will figure high up on the employer's recruitment agenda.

The global fulcrum of economic prosperity will undoubtedly shift to Asia. It is only in India that the working age population will grow; we will have more than 65 per cent of population in the working age group by 2022. However, the growth story of India will have to be supported by sufficient innovation, increased use of technology, reforms in education and skill development sector and matching it with investments.

Being Ready for the Future

  • India's working age population will grow, but this will have to be supported with sufficient innovation, increased use of technology, reforms in education and skill development with matching investments.
  • It is important to gauge the impact of new technologies on the 'labour intensive' Indian economy.
  • While technical skills will remain the indispensable foundation for a strong career, to ensure career progression and longevity, a supplement of generic life skills will also be needed.
  • Big Data and AI will enable the government to derive deep and sharp insights from multiple sources of huge data and create specific interventions based on these insights.

According to a recent Oxfam report titled 'Reward Work, Not Wealth', global inequality has reached "unacceptable levels". In 2017, around 73 per cent of India's wealth belonged to 1 per cent of its 130 crore people. It increased from 58 per cent a year ago, indicating that economic inequality has widened. Herein lies an opportunity for India to leverage its IT prowess to find solutions that democratise wealth flow, raise the living standards of the poorest of the poor and create a more equitable society.

One of the positive impacts on our workforce is the likely shift from an informal labour market to formal, structured organisations. This is going to fuel the need for acquiring formal skills and training. The pace of change is also pushing individual workers towards continuous and lifelong learning. These trends have led to drastic revamping of the current skill development ecosystem to cater to the evolving growth story and demands of Industry 4.0. Advancements in the field of AI, robotics, 3D printing and IoT may promise future prosperity and create new jobs. This may also lead to challenges for a clear majority who would find their jobs becoming redundant or changing so much that their skills become irrelevant. We agree that basic Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills would become imperative for most jobs in various spheres. Along with STEM skills, analytical thinking and innovation, learning ability, leadership skills, critical thinking, creativity, relationship building and collaboration, and cognitive abilities will be required for the future workforce to thrive and sustain in the competitive market.

As data becomes the new fuel driving the economy, the ability to acquire, manage and analyse data would become a key skill in the future. Policymakers, regulators and industries must thus collectively invest in the development of new agile learners by improving education and training systems, as well as updating the labour policies to match the realities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

We need to design a new framework for the skills of the future taking into account the cognitive skills such as critical thinking, emotional intelligence and empathy, management and leadership, relationship building and collaboration, cognitive flexibility and creativity. These skills will be central across all industries and will be over and above the skills related to emerging technologies and different vocations. These new skill sets will not replace the existing skill demand; rather, they will be required in addition to the existing ones, often augmenting the acquired vocational skills.

Labour Solutions

While the new technologies are already revolutionising the Indian economy and the workplace, it is important to gauge their impact on the 'labour intensive' Indian economy. With rising unemployment having become not just a national but also a global concern, it becomes imperative to ensure timely corrective measures based on the skill requirements to face changes brought in by industry 4.0. These measures are critical to equip the workforce, particularly the youth, with the skills of the future. Further, skills tailored to the needs of industry-specific emerging technologies will be of utmost importance, since technology advancements are expected to have different effects on different industries.

Considering the fast-paced and evolving economy, as well as the changing nature of work due to technological breakthroughs, it is critical for India to capitalise on its demographic dividend where nearly 65 per cent of the population is in the age group of 15-59 years, and equip them with employable skills, thus stimulating a sustainable development process. The above challenges are uniform across the length and breadth of the country, except in a few isolated pockets where best practices by industry and training providers have resulted in significant strides in quality training. It is therefore important for the stakeholders to come together and resolve the challenges of the skill ecosystem to achieve the aim of the Skill India Mission - namely skilling with speed, scale and quality and making the workforce ready for future technologies. However, as compared to 60-90 per cent of the workforce in developed economies, only 10.8 per cent of the total Indian workforce has undergone any kind of skill training (2.2 per cent with formal training and 8.6 per cent with informal training).

With the advent of Industry 4.0, the tasks to be carried out are becoming more demanding, in both technological and organisational terms. Interdisciplinary competencies are growing in importance. While technical skills will remain the indispensable foundation for a strong career, to ensure career progression and longevity, these technical capabilities will need to be supplemented by generic life skills. This combination will enable an individual to work in different occupation settings and conditions and will go a long way in sustaining the employability of the Indian youth.

The current wave of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) brought in by Coursera, Edx, Khan Academy, etc. has brought education and skills into the homes of people. It delivers simplified training for the masses and can morph into personalised modules which can take cognizance of the understanding and learning capability of the student and deliver modules accordingly. The trend has already begun. AI tutors by Carnegie will use this for personalised tutoring of students requiring remedial learning, thereby reducing the cost of collegiate education. AI-based methods for automatic grading of students are gaining popularity. On similar lines, MOOCs can also be leveraged for vocational education by adding a curated set of content, catalogued and organised to teach vocational skills on an open platform. This can help provide the required impetus to the Skill India Mission, thereby helping the country realise the true potential of its demographic dividend at a rapid pace.

Technology is driving us at a never before velocity. The pace of change is indeed astonishing and not entirely foreseen even by industry stakeholders. The technological revolution, like all other revolutions before, reflects man's indomitable quest to explore what lies beyond, to invent new things, to search for new knowledge. Our lives and the lives of our future generations rest on our collective wisdom to use these technologies wisely, for development of all rather than for a few, for peace rather than destruction, for preservation of the planet rather than extinction. The skills for the future will need to impart training in critical thinking, relationship building and collaboration, enhancing emotional intelligence and empathy, management and leadership, and cognitive flexibility and creativity, over and above the vocational skills needed to perform a job. Skill augmentation would thus be relevant across industries. Further, it is worthwhile to focus on STEM education as well, to help students make the leap from users of technology to innovators.

While the generic/soft skills will enable the existing workforce and new entrants to brave the onslaught of technology disruptions, STEM education at the school level will drive innovation and spur creativity, which will go a long way in building a strong foundation for the future workforce.

S Ramadorai is former Chairman of National Skill Development Corp & former CEO of TCS

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