Embedded Learning: Integrating Skill Acquisition Into Day-to-Day Activities

Steven Hunt

Economies around the world are challenged with a chronic lack of skilled employees.  Despite high unemployment levels, many companies struggle to find people who have the technical qualifications and experiences needed to fill critical roles.

Traditional educational structures are failing to produce the numbers and kinds of skilled candidates companies need.  While there are many ways we can and should improve our educational systems to address the skills crisis, we should also be doing more to rethink the methods we use to develop skilled employees.

Rather than telling workers they must go to school to acquire new skills, its time to give people tools that help them learn from their current lives without requiring formal education.

To fully understand why, let’s look at the following:

  • Methods people use to acquire skills in the absence of formal training programs and why technology is enabling us to go “back to the future” when it comes to learning.
  • Barriers that prevent unskilled workers from acquiring more advanced job skills.
  • How we might leverage people’s day-to-day life activities as an under-utilized resource for acquiring skills.

How do people acquire skills organically? 

Going to school is not the natural way for people to learn.  Don’t get me wrong – I believe in the power of a good formal school system.  But if we look at the history of humans we did not develop schools until pretty late in our evolution.

For centuries we managed to learn without classrooms and courses.  So how did we do it?  The answer is learning from experience and observation.  People acquired skills by working alongside people who knew more than them and engaging in tasks that challenged them to think differently.  In other words, the most natural way for people to learn is through formal and informal mentoring and apprenticeship relationships.

The problem with the apprenticeship approach is it doesn’t scale well.  There simply aren’t enough apprenticeship opportunities available to produce the number of skilled employees we need.

In addition, not all experts make good mentors and coaches.  But technology is starting to change this.   YouTube is probably the best widespread example of how cloud based technology is allowing skilled mentors to share their expertise with people around the world.

Want to learn how to play guitar like Brian Setzer from the Stray Cats?   There’s a video where you can virtually “sit down” with him for an hour while he shows you various tips and tricks.  Want to learn how to cook like Emeril?   Check out videos where he’ll walk you through what he does to create unique flavors.  Public access video technologies like YouTube and private access social learning technologies like Jam are addressing the historic challenge of scaling expertise through mentorships.

We now have technology that allows us to manage many issues that historically limited the value of apprenticeship based training.   This technology makes things possible around learning that weren’t possible 10 years ago.

But technology by itself does not solve problems.   You have to use it correctly.  So what is required if we are to use this technology to develop underskilled workers?

What prevents under-employed people from acquiring the skills needed to advance their careers? 

There are three major barriers that make it difficult for under-skilled workers to acquire advanced job skills:  lack of on-the-job learning opportunities, lack of time and resources for formal training, and limited awareness of what kind of skills will provide the greatest career opportunities.   I will discuss each of these in turn.

One of the myths about technology is that it eliminates jobs.  People have visions of robots replacing workers.   But the reality is a bit more complex.  Technology actually creates jobs because it fuels efficiency and economic growth.  But the jobs technology creates tend to fall into two very distinct categories:

Highly-skilled positions associated with developing and maintaining complex technological systems

Low or unskilled positions associated with performing basic service tasks that are impacted by technology but that do not require an understanding of how the technology works.

There is also a third category of jobs that technology does tend to eliminate:  semi-skilled positions that people historically used to move from unskilled work to skilled work.

Consider the example of auto mechanic.  People used to become auto-mechanics by starting out in entry-level service station jobs that involved simple tasks like pumping gas and changing oil.

Over time they would perform increasingly complex automotive tasks such as fixing brakes or replacing spark plugs that allowed them to acquire the skills needed to become a master mechanic.

Contrast that to the modern career path to becoming a mechanic.   Thanks to technology, you could pump gas for years and never learn anything about what goes on under the hood of a car.  When you do look under the hood you are confronted with technology complex machines that are for more complicated then the V-8 engines of the 1960s.

It is now very difficult to acquire the skills needed to be a mechanic simply by working in a gas station.  Most mechanics had to go to school just to learn to use the technology necessary to diagnose engine problems, let alone fix them.

The increasing gap between skilled and unskilled positions makes it hard for people to work their way into skilled jobs through on-the-job learning.  This has severely constrained what traditionally was one of the main ways people advanced their careers through skill acquisition.

The economic difference between being a skilled vs. an unskilled employee also places additional constraints on the ability of people to acquire job skills through formal education.

Unskilled jobs by definition can be filled by people with very little training or experience.  Because the labor supply for these jobs is relatively high the wages for these jobs tends to be quite low.

Many unskilled workers have to work multiple jobs to meet their basic economic needs.   They do not have the time or money to enroll in formal training programs.   This means the people that need skills the most often have the most difficulty enrolling in structured classes that teach them.

Last, unskilled workers may struggle to determine what sort of skills they should acquire because they are frequently isolated working long hours in jobs that provide little exposure or opportunity to learn skills that will help them advance their careers.

They do not have access to mentors or other advisors who can provide suggestions on what sorts of leaning opportunities will have the greatest benefit for their long-term job prospects.

A possible answer:  embed learning into life. 

One potential answer to this dilemma is to build tools that will help unskilled workers to acquire valuable career skills through normal life activities.   In the 1980s a series of studies were conducted showing that people who performed presumably mundane tasks at a very high level had found ways to use these supposedly simple tasks to develop relatively complex skills (e.g., Lave et al., 1984, Scribner, 1984).

For example, shopping for groceries can involve the use of complex mathematical formulas when people truly challenge themselves to buy the most groceries with the least money.

Similarly, people who excel at packing odd shaped objects in way that maximizes the use of storage space are able to do this because they have developed complex spatial reasoning skills. The phenomenon of acquiring complex skills through seemingly non-work related tasks goes beyond analytical reasoning.

Years ago I was interviewing a woman who had not worked in many years because she had been focused on raising her children.  When I asked her what sort of managerial skills she possessed she provided examples from her activities coordinating youth athletic activities that involved a level of organizational, relationship building, and financial skills that vastly exceed those of many people who have years of formal managerial experience.

What these examples illustrate is that the “everyday life” is rich with opportunities to acquire highly complex and valuable job skills.   The challenge is getting people to recognize and capitalize on these learning opportunities.   Social learning technology holds the potential to change this.

Imagine online videos that teach people how to perform day to day tasks in a way that is more efficient and economical and that also helps them develop valuable work-related skills.   This would allow people to use tasks such as scheduling children’s activities, performing home maintenance, or participating in volunteer programs as opportunities to develop skills and capabilities that make them more valuable employees.

People could be also be shown how to leverage public online computer programs to build technology skills while simultaneously increasing their efficiency performing routine tasks such as household budgeting.   To be fully effective, this online training would include advice on what skills are most in demand for different jobs and how to leverage skills learned outside of work to open up new career opportunities.

I am not suggesting this approach will be easy or that it will ever replace the need for formal educational programs and on-the-job learning.  But embedding learning into life does provide an alternative way to acquire skills that is cheaper, easier to access, and in many ways complementary to existing education and job-based skill acquisition methods.

And the upside is considerable. Instead of telling people they need to go to school or get a job to acquire critical career skills, we can encourage them to take advantage of the learning opportunities that are all around them.  Perhaps in the future the key to getting a better job will be to simply focus on living a more effective and efficient life in general.

Contact Steven at: shunt@successfactors.com

This article was written as part of The Future of Education research initiative.

References

Lave J.,  Murtaugh M., & de la Rocha, O. (1984).   The dialectic of Arithmetic in Grocery Shopping, in Rogoff, B.

and Lave, J. eds, Everyday Cognition, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 67–94.

Scribner, S. (1984). Studying working intelligence. In B. Rogoff and J. Lave, Eds., Everyday Cognition: Its Development in Social Context. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 9-40.

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Steven Hunt

About Steven Hunt

Steven Hunt is the Senior Vice President of Customer Value at SAP. He is responsible for guiding the strategy and deployment of knowledge, tools and process improvements that increase the value customers receive from SuccessFactors & SAP Cloud software as a service solutions.

Data Analysts And Scientists More Important Than Ever For The Enterprise

Daniel Newman

The business world is now firmly in the age of data. Not that data wasn’t relevant before; it was just nowhere close to the speed and volume that’s available to us today. Businesses are buckling under the deluge of petabytes, exabytes, and zettabytes. Within these bytes lie valuable information on customer behavior, key business insights, and revenue generation. However, all that data is practically useless for businesses without the ability to identify the right data. Plus, if they don’t have the talent and resources to capture the right data, organize it, dissect it, draw actionable insights from it and, finally, deliver those insights in a meaningful way, their data initiatives will fail.

Rise of the CDO

Companies of all sizes can easily find themselves drowning in data generated from websites, landing pages, social streams, emails, text messages, and many other sources. Additionally, there is data in their own repositories. With so much data at their disposal, companies are under mounting pressure to utilize it to generate insights. These insights are critical because they can (and should) drive the overall business strategy and help companies make better business decisions. To leverage the power of data analytics, businesses need more “top-management muscle” specialized in the field of data science. This specialized field has lead to the creation of roles like Chief Data Officer (CDO).

In addition, with more companies undertaking digital transformations, there’s greater impetus for the C-suite to make data-driven decisions. The CDO helps make data-driven decisions and also develops a digital business strategy around those decisions. As data grows at an unstoppable rate, becoming an inseparable part of key business functions, we will see the CDO act as a bridge between other C-suite execs.

Data skills an emerging business necessity

So far, only large enterprises with bigger data mining and management needs maintain in-house solutions. These in-house teams and technologies handle the growing sets of diverse and dispersed data. Others work with third-party service providers to develop and execute their big data strategies.

As the amount of data grows, the need to mine it for insights becomes a key business requirement. For both large and small businesses, data-centric roles will experience endless upward mobility. These roles include data anlysts and scientists. There is going to be a huge opportunity for critical thinkers to turn their analytical skills into rapidly growing roles in the field of data science. In fact, data skills are now a prized qualification for titles like IT project managers and computer systems analysts.

Forbes cited the McKinsey Global Institute’s prediction that by 2018 there could be a massive shortage of data-skilled professionals. This indicates a disruption at the demand-supply level with the needs for data skills at an all-time high. With an increasing number of companies adopting big data strategies, salaries for data jobs are going through the roof. This is turning the position into a highly coveted one.

According to Harvard Professor Gary King, “There is a big data revolution. The big data revolution is that now we can do something with the data.” The big problem is that most enterprises don’t know what to do with data. Data professionals are helping businesses figure that out. So if you’re casting about for where to apply your skills and want to take advantage of one of the best career paths in the job market today, focus on data science.

I’m compensated by University of Phoenix for this blog. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

For more insight on our increasingly connected future, see The $19 Trillion Question: Are You Undervaluing The Internet Of Things?

The post Data Analysts and Scientists More Important Than Ever For the Enterprise appeared first on Millennial CEO.

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Daniel Newman

About Daniel Newman

Daniel Newman serves as the Co-Founder and CEO of EC3, a quickly growing hosted IT and Communication service provider. Prior to this role Daniel has held several prominent leadership roles including serving as CEO of United Visual. Parent company to United Visual Systems, United Visual Productions, and United GlobalComm; a family of companies focused on Visual Communications and Audio Visual Technologies. Daniel is also widely published and active in the Social Media Community. He is the Author of Amazon Best Selling Business Book "The Millennial CEO." Daniel also Co-Founded the Global online Community 12 Most and was recognized by the Huffington Post as one of the 100 Business and Leadership Accounts to Follow on Twitter. Newman is an Adjunct Professor of Management at North Central College. He attained his undergraduate degree in Marketing at Northern Illinois University and an Executive MBA from North Central College in Naperville, IL. Newman currently resides in Aurora, Illinois with his wife (Lisa) and his two daughters (Hailey 9, Avery 5). A Chicago native all of his life, Newman is an avid golfer, a fitness fan, and a classically trained pianist

When Good Is Good Enough: Guiding Business Users On BI Practices

Ina Felsheim

Image_part2-300x200In Part One of this blog series, I talked about changing your IT culture to better support self-service BI and data discovery. Absolutely essential. However, your work is not done!

Self-service BI and data discovery will drive the number of users using the BI solutions to rapidly expand. Yet all of these more casual users will not be well versed in BI and visualization best practices.

When your user base rapidly expands to more casual users, you need to help educate them on what is important. For example, one IT manager told me that his casual BI users were making visualizations with very difficult-to-read charts and customizing color palettes to incredible degrees.

I had a similar experience when I was a technical writer. One of our lead writers was so concerned with readability of every sentence that he was going through the 300+ page manuals (yes, they were printed then) and manually adjusting all of the line breaks and page breaks. (!) Yes, readability was incrementally improved. But now any number of changes–technical capabilities, edits, inserting larger graphics—required re-adjusting all of those manual “optimizations.” The time it took just to do the additional optimization was incredible, much less the maintenance of these optimizations! Meanwhile, the technical writing team was falling behind on new deliverables.

The same scenario applies to your new casual BI users. This new group needs guidance to help them focus on the highest value practices:

  • Customization of color and appearance of visualizations: When is this customization necessary for a management deliverable, versus indulging an OCD tendency? I too have to stop myself from obsessing about the font, line spacing, and that a certain blue is just a bit different than another shade of blue. Yes, these options do matter. But help these casual users determine when that time is well spent.
  • Proper visualizations: When is a spinning 3D pie chart necessary to grab someone’s attention? BI professionals would firmly say “NEVER!” But these casual users do not have a lot of depth on BI best practices. Give them a few simple guidelines as to when “flash” needs to subsume understanding. Consider offering a monthly one-hour Lunch and Learn that shows them how to create impactful, polished visuals. Understanding if their visualizations are going to be viewed casually on the way to a meeting, or dissected at a laptop, also helps determine how much time to spend optimizing a visualization. No, you can’t just mandate that they all read Tufte.
  • Predictive: Provide advanced analytics capabilities like forecasting and regression directly in their casual BI tools. Using these capabilities will really help them wow their audience with substance instead of flash.
  • Feature requests: Make sure you understand the motivation and business value behind some of the casual users’ requests. These casual users are less likely to understand the implications of supporting specific requests across an enterprise, so make sure you are collaborating on use cases and priorities for substantive requests.

By working with your casual BI users on the above points, you will be able to collectively understand when the absolute exact request is critical (and supports good visualization practices), and when it is an “optimization” that may impact productivity. In many cases, “good” is good enough for the fast turnaround of data discovery.

Next week, I’ll wrap this series up with hints on getting your casual users to embrace the “we” not “me” mentality.

Read Part One of this series: Changing The IT Culture For Self-Service BI Success.

Follow me on Twitter: @InaSAP

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Why Strategic Plans Need Multiple Futures

By Dan Wellers, Kai Goerlich, and Stephanie Overby , Kai Goerlich and Stephanie Overby

When members of Lowe’s Innovation Labs first began talking with the home improvement retailer’s senior executives about how disruptive technologies would affect the future, the presentations were well received but nothing stuck.

“We’d give a really great presentation and everyone would say, ‘Great job,’ but nothing would really happen,” says Amanda Manna, head of narratives and partnerships for the lab.

The team realized that it needed to ditch the PowerPoints and try something radical. The team’s leader, Kyle Nel, is a behavioral scientist by training. He knows people are wired to receive new information best through stories. Sharing far-future concepts through narrative, he surmised, could unlock hidden potential to drive meaningful change.

So Nel hired science fiction writers to pen the future in comic book format, with characters and a narrative arc revealed pane by pane.

The first storyline, written several years before Oculus Rift became a household name, told the tale of a couple envisioning their kitchen renovation using virtual reality headsets. The comic might have been fun and fanciful, but its intent was deadly serious. It was a vision of a future in which Lowe’s might solve one of its long-standing struggles: the approximately US$70 billion left on the table when people are unable to start a home improvement project because they can’t envision what it will look like.

When the lab presented leaders with the first comic, “it was like a light bulb went on,” says Manna. “Not only did they immediately understand the value of the concept, they were convinced that if we didn’t build it, someone else would.”

Today, Lowe’s customers in select stores can use the HoloRoom How To virtual reality tool to learn basic DIY skills in an interactive and immersive environment.

Other comics followed and were greeted with similar enthusiasm—and investment, where possible. One tells the story of robots that help customers navigate stores. That comic spawned the LoweBot, which roamed the aisles of several Lowe’s stores during a pilot program in California and is being evaluated to determine next steps.

And the comic about tools that can be 3D-printed in space? Last year, Lowe’s partnered with Made in Space, which specializes in making 3D printers that can operate in zero gravity, to install the first commercial 3D printer in the International Space Station, where it was used to make tools and parts for astronauts.

The comics are the result of sending writers out on an open-ended assignment, armed with trends, market research, and other input, to envision what home improvement planning might look like in the future or what the experience of shopping will be in 10 years. The writers come back with several potential story ideas in a given area and work collaboratively with lab team members to refine it over time.

The process of working with writers and business partners to develop the comics helps the future strategy team at Lowe’s, working under chief development officer Richard D. Maltsbarger, to inhabit that future. They can imagine how it might play out, what obstacles might surface, and what steps the company would need to take to bring that future to life.

Once the final vision hits the page, the lab team can clearly envision how to work backward to enable the innovation. Importantly, the narrative is shared not only within the company but also out in the world. It serves as a kind of “bat signal” to potential technology partners with capabilities that might be required to make it happen, says Manna. “It’s all part of our strategy for staking a claim in the future.”

Planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future.

Companies like Lowe’s are realizing that standard ways of planning for the future won’t get them where they need to go. The problem with traditional strategic planning is that the approach, which dates back to the 1950s and has remained largely unchanged since then, is based on the company’s existing mission, resources, core competencies, and competitors.

Yet the future rarely looks like the past. What’s more, digital technology is now driving change at exponential rates. Companies must be able to analyze and assess the potential impacts of the many variables at play, determine the possible futures they want to pursue, and develop the agility to pivot as conditions change along the way.

This is why planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future, rather than from the past or the present. “Every winning strategy is based on a compelling insight, but most strategic planning originates in today’s marketplace, which means the resulting plans are constrained to incremental innovation,” says Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future. “Most corporate strategists and CEOs are just inching their way to the future.” (Read more from Bob Johansen in the Thinkers story, “Fear Factor.”)

Inching forward won’t cut it anymore. Half of the S&P 500 organizations will be replaced over the next decade, according to research company Innosight. The reason? They can’t see the portfolio of possible futures, they can’t act on them, or both. Indeed, when SAP conducts future planning workshops with clients, we find that they usually struggle to look beyond current models and assumptions and lack clear ideas about how to work toward radically different futures.

Companies that want to increase their chances of long-term survival are incorporating three steps: envisioning, planning for, and executing on possible futures. And doing so all while the actual future is unfolding in expected and unexpected ways.

Those that pull it off are rewarded. A 2017 benchmarking report from the Strategic Foresight Research Network (SFRN) revealed that vigilant companies (those with the most mature processes for identifying, interpreting, and responding to factors that induce change) achieved 200% greater market capitalization growth and 33% higher profitability than the average, while the least mature companies experienced negative market-cap growth and had 44% lower profitability.

Looking Outside the Margins

“Most organizations lack sufficient capacity to detect, interpret, and act on the critically important but weak and ambiguous signals of fresh threats or new opportunities that emerge on the periphery of their usual business environment,” write George S. Day and Paul J. H. Schoemaker in their book Peripheral Vision.

But that’s exactly where effective future planning begins: examining what is happening outside the margins of day-to-day business as usual in order to peer into the future.

Business leaders who take this approach understand that despite the uncertainties of the future there are drivers of change that can be identified and studied and actions that can be taken to better prepare for—and influence—how events unfold.

That starts with developing foresight, typically a decade out. Ten years, most future planners agree, is the sweet spot. “It is far enough out that it gives you a bit more latitude to come up with a broader way to the future, allowing for disruption and innovation,” says Brian David Johnson, former chief futurist for Intel and current futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “But you can still see the light from it.”

The process involves gathering information about the factors and forces—technological, business, sociological, and industry or ecosystem trends—that are effecting change to envision a range of potential impacts.

Seeing New Worlds

Intel, for example, looks beyond its own industry boundaries to envision possible future developments in adjacent businesses in the larger ecosystem it operates in. In 2008, the Intel Labs team, led by anthropologist Genevieve Bell, determined that the introduction of flexible glass displays would open up a whole new category of foldable consumer electronic devices.

To take advantage of that advance, Intel would need to be able to make silicon small enough to fit into some imagined device of the future. By the time glass manufacturer Corning unveiled its ultra-slim, flexible glass surface for mobile devices, laptops, televisions, and other displays of the future in 2012, Intel had already created design prototypes and kicked its development into higher gear. “Because we had done the future casting, we were already imagining how people might use flexible glass to create consumer devices,” says Johnson.

Because future planning relies so heavily on the quality of the input it receives, bringing in experts can elevate the practice. They can come from inside an organization, but the most influential insight may come from the outside and span a wide range of disciplines, says Steve Brown, a futurist, consultant, and CEO of BaldFuturist.com who worked for Intel Labs from 2007 to 2016.

Companies may look to sociologists or behaviorists who have insight into the needs and wants of people and how that influences their actions. Some organizations bring in an applied futurist, skilled at scanning many different forces and factors likely to coalesce in important ways (see Do You Need a Futurist?).

Do You Need a Futurist?

Most organizations need an outsider to help envision their future. Futurists are good at looking beyond the big picture to the biggest picture.

Business leaders who want to be better prepared for an uncertain and disruptive future will build future planning as a strategic capability into their organizations and create an organizational culture that embraces the approach. But working with credible futurists, at least in the beginning, can jump-start the process.

“The present can be so noisy and business leaders are so close to it that it’s helpful to provide a fresh outside-in point of view,” says veteran futurist Bob Johansen.

To put it simply, futurists like Johansen are good at connecting dots—lots of them. They look beyond the boundaries of a single company or even an industry, incorporating into their work social science, technical research, cultural movements, economic data, trends, and the input of other experts.

They can also factor in the cultural history of the specific company with whom they’re working, says Brian David Johnson, futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “These large corporations have processes and procedures in place—typically for good reasons,” Johnson explains. “But all of those reasons have everything to do with the past and nothing to do with the future. Looking at that is important so you can understand the inertia that you need to overcome.”

One thing the best futurists will say they can’t do: predict the future. That’s not the point. “The future punishes certainty,” Johansen says, “but it rewards clarity.” The methods futurists employ are designed to trigger discussions and considerations of possibilities corporate leaders might not otherwise consider.

You don’t even necessarily have to buy into all the foresight that results, says Johansen. Many leaders don’t. “Every forecast is debatable,” Johansen says. “Foresight is a way to provoke insight, even if you don’t believe it. The value is in letting yourself be provoked.”

External expert input serves several purposes. It brings everyone up to a common level of knowledge. It can stimulate and shift the thinking of participants by introducing them to new information or ideas. And it can challenge the status quo by illustrating how people and organizations in different sectors are harnessing emerging trends.

The goal is not to come up with one definitive future but multiple possibilities—positive and negative—along with a list of the likely obstacles or accelerants that could surface on the road ahead. The result: increased clarity—rather than certainty—in the face of the unknown that enables business decision makers to execute and refine business plans and strategy over time.

Plotting the Steps Along the Way

Coming up with potential trends is an important first step in futuring, but even more critical is figuring out what steps need to be taken along the way: eight years from now, four years from now, two years from now, and now. Considerations include technologies to develop, infrastructure to deploy, talent to hire, partnerships to forge, and acquisitions to make. Without this vital step, says Brown, everybody goes back to their day jobs and the new thinking generated by future planning is wasted. To work, the future steps must be tangible, concrete, and actionable.

Organizations must build a roadmap for the desired future state that anticipates both developments and detours, complete with signals that will let them know if they’re headed in the right direction. Brown works with corporate leaders to set indicator flags to look out for on the way to the anticipated future. “If we see these flagged events occurring in the ecosystem, they help to confirm the strength of our hypothesis that a particular imagined future is likely to occur,” he explains.

For example, one of Brown’s clients envisioned two potential futures: one in which gestural interfaces took hold and another in which voice control dominated. The team set a flag to look out for early examples of the interfaces that emerged in areas such as home appliances and automobiles. “Once you saw not just Amazon Echo but also Google Home and other copycat speakers, it would increase your confidence that you were moving more towards a voice-first era rather than a gesture-first era,” Brown says. “It doesn’t mean that gesture won’t happen, but it’s less likely to be the predominant modality for communication.”

How to Keep Experiments from Being Stifled

Once organizations have a vision for the future, making it a reality requires testing ideas in the marketplace and then scaling them across the enterprise. “There’s a huge change piece involved,”
says Frank Diana, futurist and global consultant with Tata Consultancy Services, “and that’s the place where most
businesses will fall down.”

Many large firms have forgotten what it’s like to experiment in several new markets on a small scale to determine what will stick and what won’t, says René Rohrbeck, professor of strategy at the Aarhus School of Business and Social Sciences. Companies must be able to fail quickly, bring the lessons learned back in, adapt, and try again.

Lowe’s increases its chances of success by creating master narratives across a number of different areas at once, such as robotics, mixed-reality tools, on-demand manufacturing, sustainability, and startup acceleration. The lab maps components of each by expected timelines: short, medium, and long term. “From there, we’ll try to build as many of them as quickly as we can,” says Manna. “And we’re always looking for that next suite of things that we should be working on.” Along the way certain innovations, like the HoloRoom How-To, become developed enough to integrate into the larger business as part of the core strategy.

One way Lowe’s accelerates the process of deciding what is ready to scale is by being open about its nascent plans with the world. “In the past, Lowe’s would never talk about projects that weren’t at scale,” says Manna. Now the company is sharing its future plans with the media and, as a result, attracting partners that can jump-start their realization.

Seeing a Lowe’s comic about employee exoskeletons, for example, led Virginia Tech engineering professor Alan Asbeck to the retailer. He helped develop a prototype for a three-month pilot with stock employees at a Christiansburg, Virginia, store.

The high-tech suit makes it easier to move heavy objects. Employees trying out the suits are also fitted with an EEG headset that the lab incorporates into all its pilots to gauge unstated, subconscious reactions. That direct feedback on the user experience helps the company refine its innovations over time.

Make the Future Part of the Culture

Regardless of whether all the elements of its master narratives come to pass, Lowe’s has already accomplished something important: It has embedded future thinking into the culture of the company.

Companies like Lowe’s constantly scan the environment for meaningful economic, technology, and cultural changes that could impact its future assessments and plans. “They can regularly draw on future planning to answer challenges,” says Rohrbeck. “This intensive, ongoing, agile strategizing is only possible because they’ve done their homework up front and they keep it updated.”

It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen in the future, but companies can help to shape it, says Manna of Lowe’s. “It’s really about painting a picture of a preferred future state that we can try to achieve while being flexible and capable of change as we learn things along the way.” D!


About the Authors

Dan Wellers is Global Lead, Digital Futures, at SAP.

Kai Goerlich is Chief Futurist at SAP’s Innovation Center Network.

Stephanie Overby is a Boston-based business and technology journalist.


Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.

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Dan Wellers

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation. Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu

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Human Is The Next Big Thing

Traci Maddox

One of my favorite movies of 2016 was Hidden Figures. The main character, Katherine Johnson, and her team of colleagues had an interesting job title: Computer. Here’s what Katherine said about her job: “On any given day, I analyze the binomial levels of air displacement, friction, and velocity. And compute over 10 thousand calculations by cosine, square root, and lately analytic geometry. By hand.”

That was the 1960s. It was amazing work, but work that took hours to complete – and something an in-memory computer could do in a fraction of a second today.

Just as in-memory computing transformed calculating by hand (and made jobs like Katherine’s much easier), digital technologies are transforming the way we work today – and making our day-to-day activities more efficient.

What’s the real impact of technology in today’s workplace?

We are surrounded by technology, both at home and at work. Machine learning and robotics are making their way into everyday life and are affecting the way we expect to engage with technology at work. That has a big impact on organizations: If a machine can do a job safely and more efficiently, a company, nonprofit, or government – and its employees – will benefit. Digital technologies are becoming increasingly more feasible, affordable, and desirable. The challenge for organizations now is effectively merging human talent and digital business to harness new capabilities.

How will jobs change?

What does this mean for humans in the workplace? In a previous blog, Kerry Brown showed that as enterprises continue to learn, human/machine collaboration increases. People will direct technology and hand over work that can be done more efficiently by machine. Does that mean people will go away? No – but they will need to leverage different skills than they have today.

Although we don’t know exactly how jobs will change, one thing is for sure: Becoming more digitally proficient will help every employee stay relevant (and prepare them to move forward in their careers). Today’s workforce demographic complicates how people embrace technology – with up to five generations in the workforce, there is a wide variety in digital fluency (i.e., the ability to understand which technology is available and what tools will best achieve desired outcomes).

What is digital fluency and how can organizations embrace it?

Digital fluency is the combination of several capabilities related to technology:

  • Foundation skills: The ability to use technology tools that enhance your productivity and effectiveness
  • Information skills: The ability to research and develop your own perspective on topics using technology
  • Collaboration skills: The ability to share knowledge and collaborate with others using technology
  • Transformation skills: The ability to assess your own skills and take action toward building your digital fluency

No matter how proficient you are today, you can continue to build your digital IQ by building new habits and skills. This is something that both the organization and employee will have to own to be successful.

So, what skills are needed?

In a Technical University of Munich study released in July 2017, 64% of respondents said they do not have the skills necessary for digital transformation.

Today's workplace reality

These skills will be applied not only to the jobs of today, but also to the top jobs of the future, which haven’t been imagined yet! A recent article in Fast Company mentions a few, which include Digital Death Manager, Corporate Disorganizer, and 3D Printing Handyman.

And today’s skills will be used differently in 2025, as reported by another Fast Company article:

  • Tech skills, especially analytical skills, will increase in importance. Demand for software developers, market analysts, and computer analysts will increase significantly between now and 2025.
  • Retail and sales skills, or any job related to soft skills that are hard for computers to learn, will continue to grow. Customer service representatives, marketing specialists, and sales reps must continue to collaborate and understand how to use social media effectively to communicate worldwide.
  • Lifelong learning will be necessary to keep up with the changes in technology and adapt to our fast-moving lives. Teachers and trainers will continue to be hot jobs in the future, but the style of teaching will change to adapt to a “sound bite” world.
  • Contract workers who understand how businesses and projects work will thrive in the “gig economy.” Management analysts and auditors will continue to be in high demand.

What’s next?

How do companies address a shortage of digital skills and build digital fluency? Here are some steps you can take to increase your digital fluency – and that of your organization:

  • Assess where you are today. Either personally or organizationally, knowing what skills you have is the first step toward identifying where you need to go.
  • Identify one of each of the skill sets to focus on. What foundational skills do you or your organization need? How can you promote collaboration? What thought leadership can your team share – and how can they connect with the right information to stay relevant?
  • Start practicing! Choose just one thing – and use that technology every day for a month. Use it within your organization so others can practice too.

And up next for this blog series – a look at the workplace of the future!

The computer made its debut in Hidden Figures. Did it replace jobs? Yes, for some of the computer team. But members of that team did not leave quietly and continue manual calculations elsewhere. They learned how to use that new mainframe computer and became programmers. I believe humans will always be the next big thing.

If we want to retain humanity’s value in an increasingly automated world, we need to start recognizing and nurturing Human Skills for the Digital Future.

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Traci Maddox

About Traci Maddox

Traci Maddox is the Director of the North America Customer Transformation Office at SAP, where she is elevating customer success through innovation and digital transformation. Traci is also part of the Digital Workforce Taskforce, a team of SAP leaders whose mission is to help companies succeed by understanding and addressing workforce implications of digital technology.