As the pace of technological change continues to accelerate with the disruption caused by the arrival of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), companies face enormous pressure to equip employees with the skills necessary to support their business needs. Carol Stubbings, joint global leader of People and Organization at PwC U.K., says, “When you think about technology specifically in organizations, it is impacting every single job.”
To address this challenge, companies are investing billions to upskill their workforces to meet future skills demands. Let’s examine what drives the need for upskilling, the upskilling strategies used by leading companies, why management accountants need to upskill, and strategies to promote upskilling in your organization.
THE FOURTH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
In 2015, the term 4IR was coined by Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, to describe the disruption caused by technology developed during the Third Industrial Revolution. Examples of the technological advances are AI, 3D printing, robotics, the Internet of Things, and quantum computing. He explains the sense of urgency to address 4IR disruption, saying it “is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace.” He urges organizations to respond to the challenges caused by technology to create opportunities. Schwab believes that talent, not investment capital, is the key to adapting to and thriving in the 4IR.
To ensure that companies have the right talent to achieve their missions, they must invest in upskilling their employees. One of the major themes of PwC’s 2020 23rd Annual Global CEO survey is the need to upskill employees. It says, “Increases in automation, changes in demographics and new regulations will make it much harder for organizations to attract and retain the skilled talent they need to keep pace with the speed of technological change. They will have to grow their own future workforce.” Many companies are taking proactive steps to develop and upskill their employees.
FOLLOW THE LEADERS
In July 2019, Amazon announced Upskilling 2025. Building on existing programs and launching new programs, the objective is to fill technical skills gaps in the company. Programs include its Machine Learning University (MLU), Amazon Technical Academy, and AWS (Amazon Web Services) Training and Certification. MLU focuses on developing machine learning skills for employees. Amazon Technical Academy trains nontechnical associates in software engineering skills used to support the company’s operations, while AWS Training develops cloud engineering skills to support its AWS business. Amazon projects that thousands of employees will participate in the programs.
In January 2020, CNBC’s Kate Rogers reported that manufacturing companies, a segment that can leverage technological change to transform manufacturing processes, plan to invest $26 billion in 2020 to upskill workers to meet the growing demand for qualified workers. Protolabs, headquartered in Maple Plain, Minn., is a global digital manufacturer of custom prototypes and on-demand parts. In the design for additive manufacturing industry, better known as 3D printing, the company’s products depend on mastering the latest trends in digital design and manufacturing to serve its customers. Upskilling its workforce is an essential strategy to maintain its competitive advantage.
The challenges of implementing employee upskilling include identifying essential future competencies. The IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) Management Accounting Competency Framework’s Technology and Analytics domain identifies digital technology competencies that management accountants should master. This includes developing information systems, exercising data governance to safeguard the integrity and security of data, performing data analytics to leverage data for decision making, and using data visualization to present data analytics. Each competency presents important digital skills that can improve a company’s effectiveness. They’re organized on a competency development spectrum ranging from limited to expert knowledge.
An organization can use this framework to perform a gap analysis to identify technology that it should consider adopting by comparing it to its existing technology. The framework also provides a developmental progression to prepare a workforce to support new technologies. In other words, it provides a road map for developing employees’ technical skills.
Another challenge is finding instructors to teach technical competencies. Amazon’s MLU program addresses this problem by recruiting instructors from within the company. Its machine learning staff of 400 data scientists teaches employees through a series of six-week modules with either a half day or one day of instruction each week. Local university professors and consultants could also fill this role. IMA provides numerous monthly webinars that address cutting-edge technology topics. Most present actual company examples that participants can apply to their organizations.
Several studies conclude that employees value professional development and training. Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends Survey found that employees want to learn and rate that opportunity as a major reason for taking a job. Another survey conducted by Robert Half and Enactus had a similar finding from Generation Z workers (born 1990–1999) who currently represent 20% of the workforce. Ninety-one percent of this survey’s respondents said that professional training and development is an important factor when accepting a job.
Companies must adopt a sense of urgency and start future-proofing their employees by upskilling and reskilling them. Technology disruption is the new normal. Occasional training won’t get the job done. Instead, organizations must focus on creating a learning culture to continuously develop employees. Analyze and identify skills gaps in your organizations and develop plans to eliminate the gaps. Reward employees who step up to learn new skills, create cross-functional teams to share technology and accounting and business knowledge, develop in-house training programs, provide tuition reimbursement, and foster collaboration. Companies failing to do this will be left behind. For companies embracing upskilling, the payoff is simple: competitive advantage.The opinions included are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Air Force, or any other federal agency.