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Sustaining Tech Capability, Developing Human Resources, and Adopting a Strategic Approach

Whitespace logo By Whitespace
29th October 2020

The second meeting of the Technology & Innovation Executive Roundtable tackled a broad sweep of themes while providing a chance for an exchange of feedback and ideas between the gathered Corporate leaders and representatives of the government.

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Building a better tomorrow: The Key Themes Understanding the prime challenges

One word encapsulates diverse set of challenges that lie ahead for humanity. That word is - perhaps unsurprisingly - ‘change’. Humanity is facing a period of uncertainty and dynamism over a fairly short time frame. While all of the engines of change below will be broadly obvious as contemporary issues, it is valuable to consider them as a whole before any look at negotiating the future successfully.

Global Trends

- Climate change
- Digitisation (disruption/transformation) of industries
- Global shifts in power and wealth (presently from West to East)
- Aging and growing populations (and the impact of work and sustainable care)

UK-specific trends:

- Uncertainty around Brexit outcomes and impacts

- Growing skills gap (between required skills and existing ones)

- Increasing wealth gaps (including geographically, with unequal prosperity in different regions

- An infrastructure deficit of spending

Governments have limited capacity in isolation to influence such challenges, but there are numerous opportunities in meeting them. As such Governmental collaboration and partnerships with Corporations and other global-scale organisations will prove key to developing skills, sustaining technology and establishing meaningful strategic approaches.

Addressing the skills gap

Addressing key skills gaps, shortcomings in education and retraining approaches will be key in delivering and employing any innovative technologies and strategies going forward. Developing and deploying technology and strategy, after all, are human tasks founded on skills and training. Skills development can be seen as a strategic process in itself. A skills void places a substantial obstacle to innovation, commercial success and technological progress. Today, for example, in spite of all the enthusiasm about the potential of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the UK seriously lacks the numbers of suitably experienced hires required.

The issue of providing appropriate and meaningful education and training to meet with a rapid rate of technological and societal change has been a longstanding challenge for educators. Lag between the emergence of new needs in the marketplace and the establishment of quality training models that serve those needs can make it hard to secure and retain appropriately skilled staff.

Meanwhile, cultural shifts are changing the way new generations of workers perceive their relationships with employers. It has been observed that often the Gen Z workforce (those born roughly from the mid-1990s and beyond) move on to new employment after just six-to-12 months with a Corporation, while Millennials (born 1981-to-1996) are ‘brand loyal’ to a corporate employer for only two-to-three years.

Those demographics – in particular Gen Z – are also more likely to be motivated by the purpose and impact of their work as much as their salary. They are, critically, hugely important to addressing the knowledge and skills gap. As such, Corporate leaders may be wise to begin to think about how they can shift the employment ecosystem to both retain a new generation of staff, and motivate and incentivise a human resource as concerned by societal and global betterment as individual gain.

There is equally a key need to support retraining and fine tuning the skills and knowledge of Millennial and Gen Z employees, meaning initiatives and programs such as the apprenticeship levy and R&D tax credit may need their scope and structures adjusted to better support new models of training. Consider the following analogous hypothetical example: If tax credits are currently given for ‘riding a bike to work’, should they not also be given for ‘learning to ride a bike’?

In short, current ecosystems and resources available to Corporates may need to be restructured to serve as tools that reduce skills gaps and shortages.

Emphasising the value of ‘lifelong learning’

While there has been considerable effort from Government and educators to bring the likes of coding and technology into the school curriculum, it is apparent that retraining existing, established and senior staff is less commonly talked about.

An education system that mirrors contemporary employment needs serves as a national foundation for potential, and initiatives that seek to incentivise educating and reskilling younger employees should be celebrated. But senior staff, long-term employees and adults generally also need to be granted access to retraining and updating their skills; even right up to a C-suite level. Senior decision makers need context to make informed decisions.

Corporates can handle this themselves to a degree, using initiatives like ‘coding clubs’ for mature and veteran staff. However, support and incentivisation from Government that is guided and integrated into national long-term strategies will likely be a much better approach going forward.

Broadly, Corporations that authentically innovate with purpose and pursue social and environmental betterment – as well as the bottom line – will not only retain more staff and attract premium talent, but also better survive the transition through the disruptive years ahead.

Training staff for their ’next career’

While retaining and retraining staff is important, the related point of embracing high talent churn also warrants serious consideration. Broadly, if staff are likely to move on within increasingly short timeframes, Corporations may see better long term results if they accept the reality of the behaviour patterns of new generations of employees.

There is a collective gain for all Corporations – and their customers and other beneficiaries – if staff are trained not to be retained, but to ‘support their next career’. If it is inevitable that many young employees will soon move on, there are advantages in training them to be ready for that move. They may serve as future evangelists for your Corporation, even putting work and opportunity your way. While under your Corporation’s employment they will very likely work with more devotion and efficiency if they feel supported with regard to their career path aims (which may tangentially actually inspire retention). And if that kind of thinking and approach becomes a norm across the Corporate landscape, more Corporations will start to see more suitably and diversely experience talent move between them, bringing a perspective informed by a varied employment history.

That may sound like an idealist perspective that could only be meaningful if numerous Corporations adopted it; but it may be better to go with that idealism rather than work against the emerging reality of rapid employee churn.

Respecting the value of updating lower-level skills

It is arguable that too much focus is placed on high-level skills relative to low-level skills. While the need for creative coders and AI engineers is a serious issue, it should not be forgotten that training and retraining in low-level skills will be key to modernising a significant percentage of the workforce. That’s especially true if you consider that even high-skilled staff also need to embrace emerging low-level skills. Equally, many high-level skills gradually ‘trickle down’ into low skill categories. It is entirely possible coding in the future will not be a speciality, but an everyday generalist skill.

The need for Governmental positiveness

Another point of agreement centred around Government projecting optimism and positiveness. It was pointed out that in recent years initiatives such as the Tech City and Tech Nation programs can foster a sense of national and Corporate enthusiasm, energising the sector. Tech Nation is ongoing as an initiative, but a sense pervades that those projects have edged away from the spotlight.

There is also a desire to see more positivity from individual MPs. However, in an era when increasing levels of online abuse are directed at politicians, there is understandable pessimism and uncertainty about technological evangelism in those ranks. It may well be that the Government itself needs to retrain MPs, while society more broadly addresses the knock-on effect of political polarisation.

Some senior business leaders also feel there is too much messaging from individuals within Government focused on fear, fatalism or even doom-mongering, which can have a meaningful impact on society and ambition.

It has been proposed that Government should be emanating a sense of ‘national life’ and setting the example through confident leadership, inspiration and long-term strategic thinking. Leading a national mood of justifiable optimism may be one of the most important roles the Government could play in the coming months and years, even if that is a somewhat abstract concept. That process could be made more tangible and practical if understood as a need for greater Governmental direction of ‘national competence’ throughout the system of education, apprenticeships, reskilling within employment and so on.

Shifting the perspective of the corporate sectors

Some Corporate sectors are facing challenges in recruiting and other areas thanks to periods of turmoil or controversy in the public eye. The banking, accounting and medical fields, for example, can be understood to have less than perfect public profiles; even if misunderstanding and misinformation are partly to blame.

An effort of ‘trust restoration’ may be needed to reposition the reputation and understanding of large corporations; something Government may be able to help foster. For example, accountants could be meaningfully projected as caretakers of pensions, as well as agents for better financial literacy and planning within the general public. Shifts in image may better serve the effort – and recruitment pipeline – of Corporations that have the resources to help humanity adapt as we face a period of intense and intimidating change.

Sustaining and retaining startups as they grow

Here in the UK we play host to the highest numbers of startups in Europe, and at the same time see some of the fastest rates of exit in the continent. That could prove to be a major hurdle the UK establishing and accomodating Corporations with significant global influence such as Facebook or Google, and building a more prosperous financial and Corporate ecosystem.

While UK-based startups have plenty of access to capital early on, more may need to be done to provide funding in late stages, where larger volumes are needed. That can see numerous founders take their companies overseas, particularly to the Silicon Valley and Boston, US. As such, an effort is needed to build more sophistication into the UK and Europe-wide capital market, which would lead to higher valuation, and may also tempt more companies to stay in the UK and target IPOs over selling out to a US or global Corporation. The Government should consider endeavouring to bring more maturity and critical mass to the realm of venture capitalism in the UK.

It may equally be the case that enthusiasm in the UK for accelerator initiatives, open collaboration and early stage investing is not yet complemented with enough counterbalancing effort to reducing late-stage friction in the route to market.

In Summary

Ultimately, all of the above themes and talking points relate to an intimately integrated ecosystem, where technology, training and strategy should coexist as facets of a singular effort to adapt to change and make tomorrow an even better time than today. That can only happen if strategy – over and above the simple aggregation of tactical initiative – exists so as to enable Government to create a unity of effort and coordination of action, within which Corporates can meaningful contribute, set examples and shape change.

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