Three ways to make a company’s competitive advantage their employees, not their technology

Corporations should encourage more cooperation.
Corporations should encourage more cooperation.
Image: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
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There is no shortage of dystopian views in today’s headlines: We are told that robots will take our jobs and that artificial intelligence will think for us. Yet in this age that heralds technology as the silver bullet, leaders must not overlook their most important source of competitive advantage: their people.

As the fourth industrial revolution takes off, leaders and workers alike will be challenged like never before. The speed and scale of technology is not only challenging entire business models, but redefining the notion of a “workforce” and work itself.

As technology makes us more productive, companies will depend more—not less—on human creativity. Positive outcomes aren’t inevitable. The clock is ticking, and CEOs need to make people a priority or risk leaving scores of workers—and their company’s competitive strength—behind.

But where to start? Accenture surveyed 10,000 workers around the world for our latest study, “Harnessing revolution: Creating the future workforce,” to discover what actions companies need to take to protect their employees. Here are three things leaders at the highest levels of their organizations should do to shape their future workforce today.

Help workers learn new skills faster

Workers are well aware that they need to develop new skills to remain relevant. In our survey, 85% of respondents said they would be willing to invest their free time to learn new skills. If companies invest in developing rapid reskilling programs, they can mitigate automation’s negative impact on workers. For example, if we double the pace at which people learn new skills, our analysis shows that the share of jobs at risk of total automation by 2025 will fall from 10% to only 4% in the US, from 9% to 6% in the UK, and 15% to 10% in Germany.

Workers prefer to learn on the job, and intelligent technology enables this. For example, Airbus workers on the A330 assembly line are equipped with the most advanced mobile and wearable devices to support them in their daily work, increasing productivity and improving quality of service while helping them learn new skills on the job?

Ultimately though, it’s not just about reskilling—we must create a more relevant and dynamic “life script” for the digital age. When I grew up, the expected script was school, college, then working in a particular field for life. But times have changed, and the new life script is one where learning, working, and then learning some more becomes the norm.

Redesign work to encourage collaboration and flexibility

Demographic shifts are as significant as shifts in technology. Older workers are retiring in droves, and in less than a decade, millennials will make up 75% of the workforce. Gen Z, meanwhile, is entering the workforce as the first true digital natives. But the big story is not in these individual groups—it’s the powerful cross-generational dynamic that we can build.

Our analysis shows 56% of all workers expect to stay with their current employer for no more than five years, and 67% want to pursue self-employment or freelance opportunities. This requires leaders to implement flexible workforce models, such as shifting from function-based roles to dynamic, short-term project work. Companies must encourage greater levels of autonomy for teams to experiment and partner with others both inside and outside the company. Personalized benefits, learning opportunities, and a gig-like internal market will create a vibrant community where full-timers and freelancers alike are motivated to stay connected to the organization.

Strengthen the talent pipeline

Companies need to look beyond their doors to collectively strengthen the talent supply chain. We must find new ways to partner with government and academic institutions to align the education of young people to the needs of industry.

Take the Global Apprenticeship Network, for example: It bands together companies, associations, and other organizations to promote quality apprenticeships. Their remit is to create job opportunities for young people by aligning skills to business demand.

Industries are also taking the lead to fill skills gaps; NASSCOM, India’s engineering industry group, is helping the public sector create new courses on data science and analytics, automation, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

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There’s a beautiful paradox in the fourth industrial revolution: Humans will leave behind their robotic work, partnering with intelligent machines to do more creative work. People need to learn how to collaborate with machines in ways that augment their skills to take on higher-value roles.

Automation has its limits—it’s people, not robots, who break into new markets, imagine new products, and craft compelling experiences. While STEM skills make the headlines, cognitive flexibility, creativity, and complex problem-solving will accelerate success.

Savvy leaders will therefore strike the right balance and use technology to elevate, not eliminate, people. According to our research, workers of all generations and skill levels appear ready to embrace the new reality of technology in the workplace: 84% believe it will improve their work experience in the next five years. But it will take strong and radical leadership in an uncertain time to achieve this goal. With workers on their side, leaders have rarely had such an opportunity—and an obligation—to seize the moment to create positive outcomes for their people, business, and communities.