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Learning Will Be Customised

Skilling programmes need to be rapid, flexible and highly personalised. Organisations need to instill a culture of continuous learning
Rekha M Menon   New Delhi     Print Edition: February 9, 2020
Learning Will Be Customised
Illustration by Raj Verma

We are in the post-digital age, where technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and extended reality are catalysing change, creating extraordinary new capabilities. And yet, even as these technologies grow in relevance, people remain the most important source of competitive advantage, and at the core of any transformation strategy.

For India and for its businesses, workforce transformation is the script for success in the digital economy, with skill building being the foundation. Bringing about a skills transformation at a national scale, however, requires cohesive multi-stakeholder effort, and businesses have a huge role to play in this. At the front lines of economic activity, they are in the hot seat - not only because they are better placed to create immediate impact, but also because they have a lot at stake.

Skill building is crucial for unleashing the trillion-dollar economic opportunity presented by intelligent technologies like AI. Our research also shows that a mismatch between the rate of skill building and technological progress could set the economy back by nearly $2 trillion by 2028. But that's only one of the problems. In a labour dependent economy like India, unemployment and intensified income inequality are real threats that could have far reaching consequences for everyone involved.

Organisations recognise the importance of building the future workforce, but the catch is that skills transformation is as complex as it is critical. It requires a rethink of existing principles and a recast of processes at various levels, constant calibration to align with evolving needs, and speed and agility which are critical for navigating the digital economy. Organisations need a systematic approach for reskilling, because that's the only way to achieve both relevance and scale.


Best Foot Forward

A mismatch between the rate of skill building and technological progress could set the Indian economy back by nearly $2 trillion by 2028.

The greatest benefit of AI is the augmentation of human capabilities, freeing up time for people to do higher-value work.

Businesses need to pay attention to addressing skills gap at source. In 2016, 2.6 million students graduated with degrees in STEM disciplines. Yet, research shows that practical proficiency levels limit employability of graduates.


Work forces are becoming "Human+" with individuals empowered by their skill sets and knowledge plus a new, constantly growing set of capabilities made possible through technology. To get onto the right path, organisations need to set the skilling agenda by reimagining the very nature of work and how it's done, recognising that the most significant impact of intelligent technologies on the future of work is their effect on role definitions and distribution.

As my colleagues Paul Daugherty and H. James Wilson assert in their book, Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI, the greatest benefit of AI is the augmentation of human capabilities, freeing up time for people to do higher-value work. For example, people in operational roles can graduate to insight driven roles, those in mono-skilled roles can move to multi-skilled ones, and those in technical roles can engage in more creative work. Entirely new jobs are also created, especially in an area we call the 'missing middle,' a category where machines and humans work as partners, allowing humans to do their job in superhuman ways.

With responsibilities appropriately divided between humans and machines, both parties require training for the tasks they are meant to do - humans need to learn to work with intelligent machines and to hone the human skills that will be most important, and intelligent machines need to learn to do their jobs responsibly.

Delivering the learning itself is probably the toughest part. The days when university credentials determined career prospects for life, are long gone. In these times of unparalleled disruption and high-velocity change, continuous learning or "learn, work, repeat", is the only path forward. Any "new skilling" programmes, therefore, need to be rapid, flexible and highly personalised.

Organisations need to identify and prioritise new skills requirements on an ongoing basis and build these through customised training that matches each employee's skill and motivation levels. Advanced digital technologies need to be harnessed to identify needs, engage people, and deliver skilling at scale. Businesses also need to instil a culture of continuous learning, where the intellectual curiosity of people leads their personal development, and where organisations constantly push the limits of learning. For example, businesses need to stay on a constant lookout for new ideas in skill building - such as developments in neuroscience.

Switching Gears

We realised early on that our desire to become the leading provider of end-to-end digital-related services, had to be anchored in a massive talent transformation, led by "new skilling." We are driving specialisation at scale to ensure our people remain relevant and at the forefront of technology and industry.

As we developed our learning framework, we adopted a learning journey-based approach, mapping every stage of the individual learning journeys to identify potential roadblocks or barriers to learning, and identifying how intelligent technologies could overcome those challenges.

We also developed a "new skilling" framework which guides our ambition based on a progression of skills and put in place a learning approach, which replaced a "one size fits all" curriculum with a highly customised micro learning approach. We used advanced technologies to democratise learning, enabling real-time, on-demand content, and used the latest neuroscience research to enable deep learning at massive scale.

Over the last three years, our people across the globe have completed over 70 million self-directed learning activities - and adopting digital technologies has also helped us achieve more with less - increasing the time spent by people on training by 40 per cent, while lowering training costs per hour by 25 per cent.

Reskilling talent is a crucial step to achieving transformation-led growth, but it only works if supported with the mindset, acumen, speed and flexibility required to seize transformational opportunities. It begs a redesign of organisational processes, and a leadership that champions the new culture.

Businesses need to pay equal attention to addressing the skills gap at the source. On paper, India has a solid pipeline of high skilled workers - in 2016, 2.6 million students graduated with degrees in STEM disciplines. Yet, research shows that practical proficiency levels limit employability of graduates, and many students join the workforce with skills that quickly become irrelevant.

Companies must step up their engagement with the education system and government agencies to drive changes in the academic agenda at source, and not just in engineering programmes.

Industry-wide collaboration is also needed - businesses must work together to define common skill requirements and work with the education ecosystem to evolve the curriculum, supporting the execution too as much as they can. Directing corporate citizenship efforts in this area is a step that can help.

To take the digital transformation journey to the next level, it is imperative for businesses to apply new technologies, invest in the talent and organisation to build post-digital skillsets, and strengthen trust-based relationships. To be clear - workforce skilling is a necessity driven by business success and it is fundamental to any growth strategy. In a highly disrupted environment, it is also a company's responsibility to its people and to the community at large.

Rekha M Menon is Chairman and Senior Managing Director at Accenture in India

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