Conversations at #ShiftForum: Protecting Human Capital in the Digital Age

We’ve all heard the dystopian predictions of doom in which robots will take over the world and leave us humans with nothing to do. I don’t subscribe to that extreme view. In fact, recent research reveals that business leaders are divided about the impact machines will have on our day-to-day work in the near future, but they all agreed on one thing: balancing technology with a human touch will be vital to success.

So who is looking out for the interests of humans? How do we ensure that people have the relevant skills to thrive in the jobs of tomorrow? What role should government take in shaping future workforce development and technology policy? I hosted a roundtable exploring this topic at NewCo’s Shift Forum, held recently in San Francisco, and the conversation was fascinating.

woman speaking on stage with images of people behind her

Liz Matthews, senior vice president of Global Brand and Creative at Dell, on stage at NewCo’s Shift Forum 2018 where she discussed the future of work.

With emerging technologies like augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI), big data, cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) poised to completely transform the workplace by 2030, our small group agreed that government must help create a level playing field and that it has a role in ensuring basic security and privacy protections. But beyond that, no one saw government as being nimble or visionary enough to actively manage tech advancement in a way that was beneficial to the workforce.

Skills for the #FutureofWork

As technology disrupts entire industries, it’s inevitable that some jobs will be lost while new ones will be created. And it’s not just occurring in blue-collar professions; some will argue that AI is already taking over a number of white-collar jobs by automating certain tasks in sectors like accounting or the law.

The most likely area for government to intervene is in the area of workforce development, specifically by shaping soft skills development in a way that maps to technology advancements. To do so, our roundtable participants noted, government must:

  • Drive skills development from the state and local level to ensure a talent pipeline for jobs in a particular region.
  • Focus on soft skills – critical thinking, for example – knowing that they should be applicable for those currently in the workforce regardless of how technology shifts in the future.
  • Realize not everyone, particularly those likely to be displaced in the next 10-15 years, wants to be coders.
  • Work with companies to build education curriculum targeted to available jobs.

In the long-term, universal basic income (a much-discussed topic at several Shift Forum sessions) in some form will be part of the conversation. Our group explored ways to balance this safety net concept with the dignity of work. For example, could an alternative be using an individual’s personal data as a commodity against which they would be paid?

The real trick, everyone agreed, will be for government to intervene appropriately and drive productivity while not stifling innovation.

Business Must Lead

Organizations, too, have a role to play. As jobs are phased out or upleveled, what is a company’s obligation to its employees? Certainly on-the-job training and skills development. But it will be just as important, if not more so, for companies to create internal cultures that encourage exploration and knowledge-sharing across generations. Reaching out proactively to local governments or partnering with unions are other ways the business community can start preparing for the workforce changes to come, our group concluded.

What are your views on the role of government and business in preparing for the massive societal and economic shifts on the horizon? I look forward to hearing your thoughts!