Evolving skills in the digital age

Introduction

To think protectionism is becoming prevalent in an increasingly digital (and borderless) age is quite paradoxical!

However, the fact remains that governments across the globe are rebalancing growth by focusing more on domestic demand rather than on global requirements. Countries from the US and UK, to India, Japan and Australia are increasingly focusing on their domestic agendas of which skill development has become a major focus area.

At the same time, the pace of digital transformation continues to disrupt traditional industries (and traditional skills) implying that a skill development initiative is likely to fail if it does not have a digital approach at its core.

The current state of the job market demonstrates this aptly.

A farmer in rural China cannot afford to not have a smartphone with Internet access to find weather updates and El Nino conditions and it’s impact to her crop yield. A job aspirant wanting to interview with IBM’s cloud computing business in India would be well advised to learn a course on Machine Learning. A new relationship manager at a bank ought to understand how blockchain can transform his bank’s (and merchants) transactions making financial services more secure and dynamic.

Changing landscape of skills

It is no wonder then, that many traditional skills are now facing a very real and imminent existential crisis. To put this in context, the latest report titled “The future of jobs” by the World Economic Forum cited that on average, by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job today.

In the case of technology related skills, for fields such as autonomous driving, augmented / virtual reality, machine learning, many believe that the full impact of these technologies to business models and hence employability skills is evolving at a fast pace but is yet to be fully realized.

This would imply that for a vast number of traditional technology skills, their relevance would fast decay, as also mentioned in Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report.

Yet, while certain hard skills would lose importance over time, other types of skills are likely to evolve because of technological disruptions, such as robotics and machine learning, Such disruptions that completely replace existing occupations and job categories are likely to substitute specific tasks, freeing workers to focus on new tasks and leading to rapidly changing core skill sets in these occupations.

For instance, in professional services, the ability to build a story through data analysis and collaborate across virtual interactions with peers will be the key to increasing the revenue per employee metric — a critical productivity metric in the industry.

Hence while demographic and technology transformations will render a whole list of traditional skills as irrelevant, a vast number of skills will evolve over time and some may continue to have perennial importance.

How does this affect skill development in the future?

In addition to the changing landscape of skills and advances in technology, the key factor that is also disrupting how employees develop skills is the perceived lack of time.

According to behavioral psychologist B J Fogg at Stanford University, time is a critical factor in our perception of how to complete a task. A task such as skill development is likely to be perceived as a “never ending task” or a “task which takes a long time to complete.” This is also evident in the seemingly low completion rates of various MOOCs despite them providing courses from the best professors and practitioners across the globe.

To further exacerbate the “perception of time” problem, we perceive ourselves to be increasingly more busy today than we have ever felt in the past:

1. Some studies suggest our attention span is actually less than a goldfish at eight seconds

2. In certain jobs, a worker has as little as one to three minutes of idle time which appear throughout the day in 10 to 15 instances

3. We spend as little as 1% of our time on learning, amounting to just 24 minutes in a week!

In such a scenario, not only are our requirements to learn new skills perennial, but our time to learn is increasingly shrinking!

Fortunately, learning approaches are rapidly evolving from relying on just fitting learning content into any carry able or wearable device to approaching learning from a multi-disciplinary perspective.

For instance, the concept of bite sized learning has been around since the advent of eLearning (or at least since the initial drawbacks of eLearning were identified). However, only now have we realized that true bite sized learning is not just about reducing content to fit within a device, but equally about how user experience influences the way content is consumed, how game design blends with learning content to increase engagement and also how behavioral psychology helps to nudge a learner to complete a goal in small, and incremental steps.

To that end, Fitbit is a great example of how a product can blend wearable technology with behavioral science to help improve fitness. After all, fitness can also be viewed as a skill through which you can achieve your goal of losing weight, increasing muscle, etc.

In a similar manner, skill development for nearly every discipline will have to take three things into consideration:

1. How to reduce the perceived lack of time (think behavioral science)?

2. How to make learning a fun activity rather than an “added chore” (think game design)? and

3. How to increase the relevance of a skill instantly rather than imminently (think microlearning or what I like to call microskills?

As the concept of lifelong learning takes centerstage, governments, companies, individuals and learning providers will continuously evolve their approach towards skill development to take advantage of the underlying changes in the skills landscape. To further fast track this approach, digital technologies will continue to provide new found advantages that have the potential to make skill development more effective, engaging and possibly … effortless.

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