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Fourth Industrial Revolution navigation: A Guide to Thriving in the Digital Economy – ARTICLE OF THE WEEK – Issue 234 – April 2024

With the rise of so-called digital natives, businesses face a pivotal moment akin to the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As one generation exits the stage, the spotlight shifts to a new cadre of actors, poised to rewrite the script of the global workforce. The era of hokiness is fading, replaced by a demand for seamless digital experiences and a fresh approach to learning and development (L&D). As AI and automation reshape industries, the need for upskilling and reskilling becomes urgent. The gap between current skills and future demands is stark, necessitating agile and personalised training programs. Yet, traditional methods fall short in addressing the evolving needs of a workforce accustomed to hybrid work environments and on-demand learning. Collaboration between government, industry, and educational institutions is crucial to bridge this gap and foster a culture of lifelong learning. By embracing innovative approaches like programmatic learning and micro-credentials, we can empower workers to thrive in the digital age. As we navigate this transformative period, the emphasis must remain on continuous learning, ensuring that essential skills remain at the forefront of our collective efforts to shape the future workforce.

As one generation bows out, taking its bygone stagecraft, the spotlight switches to the new actors entering stage left and the play for today is about a new script and direction for a generation that is expected to be box office from curtain up. Any businesses harking back to old time hokiness surely face one last matinee, as this young cadre of so-called natural “digital natives” enter and populate the global workforce in significant numbers, marking the advent of a new era.

This Fourth Industrial Revolution is every bit as seismic as the one which preceded f ive decades past. It’s a wakeup call for any business in tech lag, that in order to compete, they need to deliver seamless, end-to-end consumer-grade digital tools and experiences and a compelling combination of L&D and opportunity, to a markedly different cohort. It will come as no surprise to the readers of this publication, that all talk is of AI and automation – omnipresent and advancing into every aspect of global workforce – it presents both opportunity and challenge. Although the specifics will differ between industries and job functions, it is likely that most employees will feel the effects of automation in some way – positively or negatively – and this will require widespread reskilling in a relatively short space of time. That AI could lead to job displacement, especially if workers don’t have the skills to keep up with advancements, is a significant consideration for future. The skills challenge that this presents is nothing new. Over the past decade, many hard technical skills have become less valuable, due to automation and soft or durable skills – leadership, emotional intelligence and collaboration – have become crucial to running a successful business. However, learning and development teams must take a new approach to meet this challenge and an important focus is on those completing their studies or just starting out in the world of work. Their digital native moniker is not a proficiency badge that signifies that they are completely qualified to interpret and understand all that is digital. They will also require a very different skillset compared to what was necessary for workers just a few years ago. What is concerning too is that there is a gap between the skills needed in the workplace now and in the future and that which the education system currently teaches. We need to rethink how we bridge this divide. Today’s training programmes must be more agile and responsive, accounting for personalised learning pathways and individual employee requirements. The ‘cookie cutter’ approach is no longer sustainable and a one-off, e-learning module or course may not expose employees to the breadth of information that is needed to address today’s business challenges.

T he statistics are a wakeup call, as AI could affect 40 percent of all jobs around the world and 60 percent of jobs in advanced economies. To date, automation has mostly impacted routine tasks, but the technology now has the capacity to impact high-skilled jobs. This puts advanced economies at greater risk of jobs being displaced by AI, but they could also harness the benefits in the long run, providing the incoming generations are fully equipped. Many organisations will be looking to create workplaces that are AI inclusive, rather than allowing the technology to replace workers. They will focus on how AI can benefit employee workflows and support business goals. For this to work, employees will need the necessary digital skills to effectively utilise new technologies and training programmes will need to be fit for the digital economy. Even major tech companies acknowledge the importance of ensuring that the new generation of employees possess up-to-date skills. Microsoft, Salesforce, Amazon and BT, recently wrote a letter to the Government, co-signed by the Institute of Coding. The letter urged the Treasury to prioritise digital skills to bridge the gap and cited the need for collaboration between educators, industry and employers to address regional inequalities. Cross-sector collaboration can also help prepare people, including those leaving education and entering work, for the future workplace and establish a culture of lifelong learning. But right now, the learning opportunities needed to bridge the AI skills gap are not keeping pace. To attract and retain potential talent, organisations should move away from the traditional mode of learning. The current talent shortage is particularly complex, as it is centred around technical and digital skills and so L&D efforts will need to evolve as the government attempts to address the digital divide and help industries struggling to fill vacancies with a steady pipeline of talent. So far, up- and reskilling strategies have been developed on the assumption that learners will be based in the traditional office environment. But with new joiners expecting hybrid working as the norm, L&D teams need to think about how to transition those strategies into the digital realm. This will be no mean feat and they must pivot corporate learning programmes in specific ways to meet these challenges head on. However, digital skills can be difficult to nurture and even harder to assess. For future training programmes to be effective, all subject matter experts should be involved in the design phase. Modularity, or an omnichannel approach towards education and training, will be essential.

In response to requests from industry leaders and major tech companies, as well as the persistent skills gap, the Government has introduced various strategies and £50 million to help improve skills and apprenticeships. This would focus on engineering and other critical sectors. However, there are currently more than 870,000 vacancies across the UK tech sector and business leaders remain concerned that the UK will be unable to meet the challenges of the future. This follows previous initiatives such as the introduction of T-Levels – and at the other end of the work demographic, returnerships for over-50s – as part of a wider effort to address the ongoing talent shortage across multiple industries. It’s positive that the Government is expanding avenues to learn and build careers, but for these training programmes to be effective, businesses and institutions need to work closely together. Continuous learning programmes that allow workers to essentially ‘stack’ or top up their skills would be a viable approach, particularly new joiners, who are used to grabbing their learning anytime, anywhere. Ideally, HR and L&D teams would work together to build comprehensive training modules that are specific to individual job roles. Compared to traditional training courses, programmatic learning relies on collaboration and feedback. These continuous, action-based blended training programmes, enable learners to test their knowledge in real-life situations, which plays to the younger cohort, eager for experiential learning. This can last several months and as they are motivated to keep topping up their skills, part-time learning must be more accessible. To achieve this a good approach is micro credentials – shorter courses which can be delivered ‘on demand’ – and updated according to business needs. In addition, knowledge transfer through mentoring can also build bridges and leverage the skills and strengths across the entire workforce for a sustainable pipeline of talent at all career stages.

Students now moving into the world of work have an intuitive mindset for lifelong learning and new experiences, which those responsible for further education and employers need to cater for. T his is a whole new generation that does not see learning cease after formal, tertiary education. Similarly, the demand for training programmes and opportunities will continue to grow, so the workforce must accept that lifelong learning will remain a constant feature of their working lives. Closing the skills gap and addressing the shortage of workers won’t be easy. It’s not simply about learning new skills, we need to normalise continuous learning. Organisations should also be willing to try different ways of learning to improve readiness among new joiners. By fostering collaboration across all sectors, we can ensure that essential skills become the focal point of modern training courses and programmes in ways that align with a new generation, which has a new way of thinking and behaving. Only then can we establish a learning approach that effectively meets the competitive demands of the new digital economy.

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