Digital Transformation and the Human Component
Written by: Jeff Frey, Talent Path
Published in: HR.com
Digital transformation relies on technology and people, it takes hard and soft skills, facts and feelings, and it changes the way organizations deal with employees and customers. An overarching term that also encompasses digitization and the term digitalization,[i] the goals set forth by the leadership of an organization determine how far the transformation goes.
There exist many very recent technological advancements that bring into question the future of work, but the permeation of artificial intelligence (AI), robotic process automation, the internet of things, virtual reality, analytics, augmented reality, and others only serve to refine the human component of work. Uniquely human jobs and aspects of work will remain far into the future.
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If digitization is the conversion of data into digital form, and digitalization is the harnessing of technology to allow interaction with data in newer, better, and faster ways, digital transformation differs from both in that it is aimed at enterprise-wide system integration and implementation. While the former two terms can be done in isolation, the latter must have the participation of all stakeholders of an organization and a culture that can handle sweeping change.
Because the involvement of humans in digital transformation efforts differs depending on the source or force of change, it makes sense to briefly mention 1) technological advancements, 2) customer desires, 3) pure innovation efforts, and 4) external environmental shifts.[ii] Tech is becoming smaller, cheaper, faster, and things we couldn’t have dreamed of doing even a year ago are feasible now due to it. Every day the new abilities we can interconnect that were once disjointed tech practically forces us to do so. If the tech doesn’t make us, customers will.
Customers hold the integrations and advancement in the palm of their hands, and we scramble to keep up. For those fortunate enough to be ahead of curve, it is a struggle to stay there. Only through intentional innovation, new solutions to problems carried through a process of acceleration and commercialization, do companies have a choice whether to give in to the force or hold it back. Not advancing, however, in today’s environment isn’t an option. Energy efficiency, labor regulations, and economical impositions back organizations into a corner and force digital transformation.
Examples I have personally been involved in include a car manufacturer handing all its existing data over to AI in hopes that they can keep their customers safer; not through better car design, but how to keep drivers safe from themselves. Capturing years of driver data, customers who drive recklessly force the manufacturer to account for those situations inside the steel, wires, and circuit boards of the car.
I assisted a popular children’s hospital with the use of digital bots fed with analytics, insights, and real-time data to help disease patients make better medication decisions. The force here is a mix of innovation efforts and technological advancements; the idea was hatched long ago, and the tech has finally caught up.
The last example is that of a digital twin. Two companies I worked with created digital twins, one company of their products and the other of their operations. In both instances, the virtual model was built along-side the real-world and was used to run simulations of inefficiency and predictive identification of upcoming problems. The cost of the savings outweighed the cost of the twin in both cases.
Ultimately, we must keep in mind that the purpose of any digital transformation, if we follow it to its very end, should be to improve the lives of humans. How wrong is it if humans become a casualty in the process? Depending on the primary force necessitating digital transformation, humans take on differing roles, but it is agreed upon by many future workforce experts that a digital-savvy skillset mixed with traits that robots can’t replicate is the ideal.
The Future of Work
Are robots going to take over people’s jobs? Yes. But is technology expected to generate more jobs than it takes away? Yes. This has always been the case in the past,[iii] and in fact, experts predict that “the rapid evolution of machines and algorithms in the workplace could create 133 million new roles in place of 75 million that will be displaced.[iv] The issue? The displaced workers don’t have the skill sets needed to fill the new roles that the tech creates, a disparity between the out-of-work and the open positions. Organizations must restructure, rehire, upskill, or outsource to meet these demands and are quickly finding the skills gap talked about in the media is a harsh reality for them.
Technology is certainly automating both manual and cognitive labor in the area of repetitive work. This frees up more time for workers to do things that robots can’t. Skim the World Economic Forum website or search for “top skills, “10 skills,” “skill sets,” along with “2030,” “future,” “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” and you’ll quickly find out that this upcoming decade calls for humans to have digital prowess AND heightened uniquely human competencies.
Forget the future, even today manufacturing employees now depend on digital counterparts to assist them with decision making, efficiency, tasks, and this human-helper hybrid with man AND machine is so far yielding the highest rate of return for companies. Routine tasks removed from humans make roles MORE human, augmenting things like design, critical thinking, interpretation, emotional intelligence, communication, customer service, problem-solving, listening, and sense-making[v] along with targeted specialized digital know-how that displaced workers don’t possess and graduates haven’t been taught. 50% of all new roles in the US remain vacant because candidates with the right qualifications can’t be found.[vi]
The New Workforce
While reskilling is noble and upskilling necessary, the development of new workforce skills must start early. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) includes large US businesses (Ford, Microsoft, Time Warner, etc) and learning organizations (Pearson, PBS, Library Networks, and more) to “realize the power and promise of 21st century learning for every student—in early learning, in school, and beyond school—across the country and around the globe.”[vii]
Key skills that P21 has identified which they believe will mark the success of our new workforce fall into three categories: learning and innovation skills, digital literacy skills, and career and life skills. Though most have already been mentioned, some like media literacy, cross-cultural interaction, and accountability round out the lists and speak to necessary online and digital acumen which will help to navigate an on-demand and interconnected world.[viii]
On the other end of the spectrum, it’s the first time in history since LinkedIn has been polling companies that “soft” skills have topped “hard” skills in their annual “Skills Companies Need Most” survey. “57% of senior leaders today say soft skills are more important than hard skills”[ix] and they include creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and time management. To stay balanced, the skills on their “hard” list show that digital transformation is well on its way as companies search the most for workers who have a deep understanding of cloud computing, AI, analytics, management (people and machine), and user experience design and development. All of which cannot, yet, be taken over by technological advancement.
The Human Component
To get down to facts, at the start of November 2019 The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that while over the 12 months ending in September hires totaled 69.9 million and separations totaled 67.4 million, yielding a net employment gain of 2.5 million; the number of job openings remains just above 7.0 million.[x] That many unfilled jobs, for such an extended time, is the reason many of us speak so often about the skills gap.
Changing the way we think about developing the new workforce, the tight labor market has forced companies to reconsider what is required to fill a position. Companies like Apple, Bank of America, Google and IBM have stopped requiring a college degree for some technology positions.[xi] I hear this from businesses I work with concerning the very technical field of cybersecurity. A healthy background in research, problem-solving, collaboration, and even a little manipulation and a company can introduce that employee to the technologies used.
Some universities and schools are keeping up and designing programs to bridge the education-employment gap, especially those augmenting their liberal arts degrees with digital skills.[xii] Degrees that immerse students in gaining skills, not just learning about the skills, are most valued. If we don’t want to leave humans in the dust of a digital transformation, we need to teach them uniquely human skills… things robots can’t automate as discussed already like creativity which is not only used in poetry, music, recipes, jokes, but also fashion design and scientific theories; or the flexibility to have some imagination and wherewithal to deal with sudden unforeseen conditions.[xiii]
If you’ve seen any of the recent Boston Dynamics robot videos[xiv], you understand the hype around human replacements. The lifelike movements and reflexes with the seemingly instant adaptability to changing terrain conditions mean robots will be carrying more and more equipment and sensors around plants, construction sites, military fronts, and disaster areas instead of humans very soon.
But will the world ever be ready for a leader made purely of AI? Making the case, a robot-CEO could make better by-the-numbers decisions, it could work all day and all night, and it doesn’t need much in the way of benefits.[xv] Beyond algorithms though, a leader possesses other qualities that their followers admire like trust, empathy, and social intelligence which are necessary at the moment to deal with things like distress of others, negotiations, and complex human interaction.[xvi]
Think of a human beating a drum, now imagine the drum is digital, now imagine the human is a robot, now imagine there is no drum or drummer, but it is all done in a digital space. A part of us as humans, a part of me as a musician, will always want to go see a concert performed by other humans and feel the creativity, adaptability, effort, and passion put into the performance. But I believe, as do many others, that the future of work in this digital transformation era will be uniquely digital and uniquely human, they are not mutually exclusive.[xvii] The simple music example explains that though digital transformation is certainly changing the way organizations deal with every aspect of their business, the human component is really where we should look when talking about the future of work.
This article originally published in HR.com’s Strategy & Planning Magazine: https://www.hr.com/en/magazines/all_articles/the-future-of-work_k4ij2wyx.html