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How to win the race to develop 4th Industrial Revolution talent

Professor Stephen Wyatt - Corporate Rebirth

In 2015 the World Economic Forum (WEF) seized on the phrase the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR). 4IR is enabled by the adoption of new technologies (for example, Biotech, Nano, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Robotics, etc.). However, it also presents the opportunity to address societal inequalities, tackle issues of sustainability and create a more human-centered future. It is driving fundamental changes in the context and speed of business and what businesses need to do to thrive.

The war for talent is over – nobody won! The race is on. WEF 2020 Future of Jobs Report estimates that in the 5 years to 2025, 85 million existing jobs will have been displaced whilst 97 million new roles will emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms. The ‘mindset of the ‘war for talent’ assumed that there was an existing, if limited talent pool that companies had to fight over. The speed and scale of workplace changes being driven by 4IR far exceeds potential supply from traditional executive training and higher education sources; reskilling and upskilling, within the flow of work, are required at scale.  The war for talent has been supplanted by the race to develop 4IR talent.

Race to develop 4IR talent
Employers expect to offer reskilling or upskilling to just over 70% of their employees by 2025; it is seen as an imperative for survival as businesses transform in 4IR. Investments at this scale must deliver a clearly identifiable return; increasingly the metric for training & development effectiveness is behaviour change on-the-job, measurably increasing individual or team productivity. Two-thirds of employers expect to achieve a positive return on their development training investment within one year. Development training at this scale is being designed to minimise disruption, both for the employee and for the employer; increasingly just-in-time-learning (or learning ‘in-the-flow-of-work’) is being adopted. Whereby training support is available on-demand as the employee faces a situation that they have not encountered before; much as at home we might go to Youtube for guidance on fixing the dishwasher at the moment we notice water flooding onto the floor. Training delivery is being crafted in such a way that the employee resolves the workplace issue during the training, not after. Such training applies to technical skills as well as collaboration and managerial skills. 94% of business leaders report that they expect employees to pick up new skills in-the-flow-of-work.

1: Nothing Changes Unless Behaviour Changes
Winning the race to develop 4IR talent requires designing learning pathways that are highly effective in achieving the behaviour change outcomes desired for the specific personnel being trained. Solutions need to take a holistic view of how to achieve that outcome and then assemble the most appropriate combination of media, platforms, content and formats.

Achieving behaviour change in adults requires simultaneously working in four domains:

  1. Motivation: Does the individual want to change their behaviour? Talent Development officers can support personal motivation with two levers:
    1. Awareness of the need / opportunity to change, which can be through providing feedback and increasing awareness of anticipated changes in job scope.
    2. Aspiration to change, which can be supported through description of benefits, such as broader job opportunities or enhanced future skills relevance from upskilling.

Personal motivation of the learner is crucial to attaining a return on investment in training. It usually is high when individuals seek out development opportunities, especially if they are willing to self-finance. However, is often under developed for employees in mandated corporate programmes.

  1. Knowledge Acquisition: Individuals react differently to the ways that the knowledge content is presented. Some prefer more visual, others reading or listening; some need discussion and others need to be engaged in activities (experiential or gaming); some need the discipline of a programme and interaction with peers, others prefer to go at their own pace, where and when they chose. Learner-centric course designs do not compel everyone to follow the same pathway. Instead they provide curated sets of alternative and reinforcing ways that the individual learner can navigate the content. Over the past 20 years much effort has been expended on comparisons of online vs. in-person, experiential vs. action learning etc. yet over 70% of HR directors remain disappointed with the return on their investment in training and development. We now know that there is no ‘best’, rather to win the race to develop 4IR talent a suite of forms, formats and mediums are required as each individual learns differently. Increasingly Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being deployed to monitor how the individual learner engages with and responds to the available content options and is thereby able to recommend supplementary steps appropriate for the individual. The AI also provides insight for ongoing course designs and improved RoI governance.
  1. Application: A return on investment in training & development is achieved only when the new desired behaviour of the individual is applied on-the-job. Action-learning approaches seek to provide a safe-space for experimentation with newly acquired knowledge and the intention of building confidence and competence before application on-the-job. However, in these days of rapid evolution and disruption of the context of business, even with careful project selection and active senior sponsorship, few employees have the energy to invest in action-learning projects. Just-in-time learning (or learning in the flow of work) removes the separation between knowing and doing, applying the newly acquired knowledge immediately on-the-job. The individual is unlikely to immediately become an expert in the new behaviour and hence an experimenter’s mindset is required. They must determine a suitable opportunity to apply the ‘new’, have the courage to act in the new way, reflect on the experience and outcomes achieved, refine the approach – and repeat. Through repetition, reflection and refinement, experience accumulates and the individual migrates from experimenter to expert.
  1. Support & Empowerment: Explicit institutional support for individual development is critical to winning the race for 4IR talent. The culture of the firm should reflect a clear appetite for learning. There should be highly visible commitments to this, for example: in strategy documents and discussions; by investing in and elevating the talent development function; by setting learning participation requirements in the objectives for each person and including these in performance and planning discussions with line-managers; and by senior leadership role-modelling this behaviour (such as the CEO celebrating in their internal posts when they attain a badge for having completed a new course). Learning outcomes and milestones should be celebrated. Equally important is supporting the learner as they experiment and apply their newly acquired knowledge on-the-job. This requires the line-manager to support the experimentation and that there are appropriate people and mechanisms to provide constructive feedback and reinforcement to the individual.

The importance, rate and scale of reskilling required by 4IR compels many companies to rethink their approaches to and investments in talent development. Learner-centric approaches are required whereby individuals engage in the ways that are most impactful for them with a suite of formats and media options, at a rate that suits them. To achieve the performance impact desired it is essential to address the four domains of behaviour change (1) Motivation, (2) Knowledge Acquisition, (3) Application on-the-job, (4) Support and Empowerment. AI will increasingly help the individual learners to define the most suitable pathways for them through the content and how to build strength in the four domains. In 4IR talent development is a strategic activity for the corporation. As such, the Chief People Officer will be increasingly supported by AI to inform ongoing talent development investments and content design as well as increasingly drawing on external expertise for diverse frontier subject knowledge and the design and curation of learning pathways. The increasing adoption of just-in-time learning combined with more fluid resource deployment will further merge the functions of role (job or project) assignment and individual learning; creating a more integrated approach to talent development.

Stephen Wyatt is the author of Management & Leadership in the 4th Industrial Revolution (Kogan Page)

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