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In 2015, Scottish Water launched its Skills Academy, a programme designed to address digital skills gaps and build confidence in using technology. As Scotland’s publicly owned water provider, the organization faces a number of strategic challenges—including climate change, aging assets and a commitment to reduce emissions—with implications for learning. It needed to harness the skills of experienced employees before they retire, attract and develop the next generation, and build capability for the future.

Targeted training aims to minimize the impact of people on the network. In the first two years of their Water Distribution Academy, there was a significant reduction in number of burst pipes and interruptions to customers decreased by almost half. Key enablers? A supportive learning culture, senior-level buy-in, and coaching and mentoring to help people gain skills and work more independently and autonomously.

Developing skills in UK organisations

Within the UK, joint research from Accenture and the CIPD found that larger employees (250 employees or more) are more likely to identify skills development needs in general management (38 percent) and HR (16 percent). In smaller companies, these figures were 26 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

The study also shows that 67 percent of organisations that identify skills gaps think they can effectively address them. Smaller employers are more confident in their abilities (75 percent, compared with 62 percent of larger organisations).

The study shows that organisations’ learning budgets are mostly focused on improving people’s performance in existing roles, leadership and management development, and onboarding. However, there seems to be little focus on skills for continued growth, career progress, and future skills for future roles. Just 11 percent of budgets are focused on personal development that’s not specific to a certain role.

Multi-disciplinary skill sets are in demand

Most of us recognize the value of a broad variety of skills across the workforce. But there needs to be a greater emphasis on broadening the variety of skills within each worker. The most useful and relevant blend of skills for each person will continuingly shift and become more complex.

For example, our analysis shows that highly analytical science and engineering roles increasingly require creativity and socio-emotional intelligence. Research scientists, who used to spend most of their time in their labs, communicating via technical papers, are now regularly called upon to interact, present and share their insights with non-technical audiences. At the same time, what have traditionally been considered “creative” roles—in marketing, for example—require more analytical skills such as interpreting social media data and examining web performance trends.

Technological skills are in demand…

There’s fierce competition for tech-savvy young professionals with the right skillsets for an age of automation and augmentation, especially since companies in most sectors need people with digital and data proficiencies. As shared in Workforce 2025, analysis from the Brookings Institution found that of 13 million new jobs created in the US between 2010 and 2016, 4 million required high-level digital skills and nearly 8.1 million demanded high- or medium-level digital skills.

To get a sense of the skills and specialisations that are coming to prominence, we can glance at the number of technologies that are converging and driving change: IoT and smart machines, artificial intelligence, augmented reality (AR, VR, and XR), 5G connectivity, quantum computing, cloud computing, cybersecurity, and data, to name a few. These technologies will need to be developed and delivered in a way that acknowledges and meets the human experience. Otherwise, we risk tech-clash, as outlined in Technology Vision 2020.

Organisations will need people with technical expertise and human skills to intervene and make or correct decisions when machines struggle to make them. Also critical will be the ability to interrogate systems to gain maximum insight. This requires knowing how they categorize information and understanding the parameters of their algorithms. Teaching intelligent machines will be fundamental, both through explicit processes based on feeding them with quality inputs and through the implicit processes of learning on the job alongside people.

…And so are human skills

Accenture analysis of the US Department of Labor’s O*NET database of occupational data found that creativity, complex reasoning and socio-emotional intelligence have sharply increased in importance for many jobs. Specifically, more than half of US jobs need higher-level creativity, over 45 percent require more complex reasoning, and 35 percent need more socio-emotional skills than in the past. This is true even in job profiles focused on physical strengths and machine operation.

For instance, industrial engineers now find themselves interacting more with leadership and shop-floor personnel to develop production and design standards, rather than maintain equipment. Similarly, because of automation, sales personnel write client reports and maintain paperwork less frequently than in the past. Consequently, socio-emotional intelligence for connecting with clients is now more germane to the job.

This is backed up by the Accenture-CIPD study. When asked about skills areas in greatest need of improvement, technical skills came first (40 percent). However, ‘soft’ skills like communication (36 percent), working in teams (34 percent), resilience and learning skills (32 percent) and problem solving skills (27 percent) followed closely.

If that’s not compelling enough, consider that MIT Sloan evaluated a 12-month in-factory training program on communication, problem solving, decision-making and stress management. It found the training returned roughly 250 percent on investment within eight months of its conclusion, mainly from boosts in worker productivity and speed with complex tasks.

What leaders are doing

Here are some ways that leaders are fostering the skillsets needed for the future.

  • Leaders are invested in closing the skills gap. Organisations that reported higher-than-average productivity were three times more likely to say they can tackle skills gaps, compared to those with below-average productivity.
  • Leaders are focusing on cross-training and equipping individuals with interdisciplinary skills. Both technical and human skills need to be blended within a person, not just distributed across the organisation.
  • Leaders are using neuroscience, behavioural science and brain science to create sticky, durable learning experiences that occur within the flow of work.

What you can do

Here are some steps to help organisations start to close the gap and enable learning and development programmes that have measurable impact on performance.

  • Address transferable skill gaps, not just technical skills. Employers increasingly depend on highly transferable core skills, such as communication, teamworking and problem-solving.
  • Future-proof your organisation by understanding the types of skills you need—and how you will source them. ‘The right people, with the right skills, in the right roles, at the right time and the right cost’ is what will ultimately deliver the right results for an organisation.

New skills for a new reality

The full promise of AI depends on humans and machines working together to develop differentiated customer experiences and to create entirely new products, services and markets. That means shifting the workforce to new business models, redefining people’s roles, and scaling up “new skilling.” Starting now. 

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