The skills needed to survive automation

Digital transformation is not new. In fact, it originated with the invention of the microchip in the 1950s. Since then, everything from cars to personal devices to washing machines now rely on digital connections to operate.

The same digital reliance now also applies to the workplace, which has become increasingly reliant on automation. While the manufacturing sector is known to be one of the most automated industries worldwide, automation is now an integral part of organisations of every size and kind. From fast food restaurants to the finance function in large enterprises, automation has put new demands on the workplace. So how do you meet them? 

In recent years concerns about automation replacing jobs has been prevalent in the media. According to a 2021 report by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), 53% of South Africans are worried that automation will threaten their job security. 46% of global workers in their twenties and 41% in their thirties view automation with the most scepticism. 

With a recorded unemployment rate of 35% in the fourth quarter of 2021, joblessness in South Africa is of paramount concern. Driven by the Covid-19 pandemic and modernisation, the workplace is changing. It stands to reason that becoming better equipped to meet changing workplace demands will require helping the labour force with reskilling where appropriate. 

The BCG report found that the most-often mentioned retraining respondents sought were digitisation and automation, followed by IT and technology.

Top skills to meet the future

Adapting to workplace demands will require new digital skills sets, which focus heavily on automated processes. These top skills include digital fluency, understanding the value of automation, embracing collaboration, advanced technology adoption and unifying data.

Digital fluency, which refers to the ability to select and use the appropriate digital solutions to achieve a desired outcome, will be the number one skill required to advance in the workplace. In contrast, digital literacy refers merely to having familiarity with the digital world. A digitally literate person will understand how to gain access to digital platforms such as social media, for instance, while a digitally fluent one knows how to leverage the power of those platforms to support and enhance business performance. 

Understanding the value of automation is an important awareness of the increased efficiency it offers across the value chain when it replaces error-prone, manual tasks such as data entry, assembling products or handling tools. Not everything that can be automated needs to be automated, nor should it be. But possessing the skill to identify which areas can be automated is an important part of the modern workplace. 

Embracing collaboration means realising it is more than just a buzzword; it is now a vital business component. Just as digital solutions offer capabilities to consolidate data in a matter of seconds, human collaboration is an increasingly valuable skill. Cross-departmental collaboration involves being able to access the same information in real time. Digital solutions can help facilitate that process, thereby effectively increasing collaboration. 

Advanced technology adoption, which includes Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other advanced tools such as Machine Learning (ML) can help businesses achieve higher revenue growth. These tools do not replace human hands, but rather they enhance their power to create even more value for the enterprise by liberating them from mundane tasks. Discovering opportunities to create value within the business is a key benefit of understanding and adopting advanced technology. 

Unifying data means being able to efficiently consolidate all the information a business gathers — from consumer behaviour patterns to warehouse inventory to procurement and controlling, businesses that operate from a single source of truth through unified data will have better access to real-time insights about business operations. Workers who know how to manage unified data will be invaluable as they contribute to long-term improved business performance. 

Despite concerns about automation, companies will continue to digitise to keep pace with market demands for efficiency and effectiveness. According to Harvard Business Review, organisations are predicted to have invested more than $6.8-trillion in digital transformation efforts by 2023. These investments will be essential for business growth and performance optimisation. Data-driven business culture will emerge even more vigorously throughout this decade.

The benefits of digital transformation are manifold: Transformative tools such as AI and ML allow businesses to make powerful predictions that were either extremely difficult or nearly impossible to do in the past. Those predictions will not only help avoid obstacles such as supply chain disruption, but they also can shine a light on the places in which strategy needs to pivot to counteract them. 

Digital fluency, understanding the value of automation, embracing collaboration, advanced technology adoption and unifying data are key factors in keeping pace with an ever-changing world. Those who embrace these skills will have the ability to make a difference in the workplace and beyond. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Julian Kestler
Julian Kestler is head of solution advisory at Jedox, a provider of enterprise performance management software solutions

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