Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Success in the next normal starts with employee education and reskilling

What can businesses do to best position themselves in a digital economy post COVID-19 pandemic? Employee education and reskilling is arguably the most critical success factor in the Next Normal.

The first time I met Adam Rauh was earlier this year at the 2020 National Retail Federation (NRF) in New York. Adam is a lead solutions engineer at Tableau, a Salesforce company, and was at NRF with the purpose of demonstrating some of the most advanced analytics use cases in the retail industry. Rauh and I did a quick video demonstration of retailers can use analytics and machine learning to improve revenue, profitability, and customer experience. Our video had nearly 10K views at the conference.

Rauh and I believe that when data is visualized, anyone can take action. Rauh did a brilliant job of demonstrating the power of analytics in driving better business outcomes. An important 2020 business lesson is that every business must become a digital business. We also learned that scale and distribution is key for businesses to adapt in uncertain times. And lastly, the most important currencies in a digital economy is speed and relevance -- both requiring data-rich capabilities. 

Since NRF, Rauh and I have been discussing the importance of digital business transformation in terms of finding the customer's single source of truth for various lines of business -- sales, marketing, services, commerce -- and the necessary skills that individuals and companies need to develop in order to cultivate a data-driven culture. So what can companies and technology professionals do to better position themselves in the next normal -- a post-pandemic world with businesses must learn to compete in an experience-led economy where speed, personalization, and intelligence will how differentiation will be defined? I asked Rauh who has spent over 15 years training on data analysis and visualization to share his thoughts about future of work, employment, and steps we can take to ensure we have the right skills for what business will need in the future.

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Adam Rauh works as a Lead Solutions Engineer at Tableau (Salesforce)

In response to the onset of the 4th Industrial Revolution a common question for many has been, "What about me -- when will AI/big data/machine learning come to take my job?" The onset of the current COVID-19 pandemic has done little to alleviate this concern. In fact as we begin to envision what the "next normal" will be, the urgency to empower businesses to successfully tackle these questions has only accelerated. But how can you empower a workforce where as many as 40 million Americans are out of work?  With shifting operating models, increasing reliance on data, and dispersion of a previously centralized workforce, the business impact of COVID-19 did not sweep aside the concerns of the 4th Industrial Revolution so much as legitimize them. How are businesses, their employees, and former employees dreaming of a better tomorrow, to respond?

COVID-19 Pandemic will accelerate business process automation 

To provide suitable answers we must accept certain realities. Prior to COVID-19 -- AI, big data, and other technologies associated with the 4th Industrial Revolution would have directly affected, or altogether eliminated, certain sectors of the workforce. Global estimates showed as many as 375 million workers needing some form of occupation change due to automation over the next decade. In every major recession over the last 30 years routine, i.e., easily tasks that can be automated, occupations accounted for 88% of the job loss. With significant overlap between jobs that were vulnerable to automation before, and those affected by the current economic downtown now, the urgency and scrutiny of adopting new methods and technologies will only intensify. 

However, unlike previous disruptions, where the use of automation and technology-filled gaps and helped rebound in efficient ways, with COVID-19 the health of a businesses most important asset -- it's employees -- is at stake. Using technology to reduce health risks associated with human interactivity could affect between 32 and 50 million jobs alone according to a recent MIT study. Indeed, technology and automation may have saved us from falling off an even bigger economic precipice. As David Autor, associate head of MIT's Department of Economics put it, "If we had been forced 20 years ago to ditch our offices and shelter in place, much of the work of business, government, and education would have come to a screeching halt."  

Imagine what the response from businesses would have been -- even could have been -- if technologies like web-conferencing, high-speed internet, and agile, easily distributed systems were not as mature as they now are.

But stabilization is one thing -- reaping long-term benefits from these technologies is entirely different. To harness rather than merely borrow the true power of these AI, Big Data, and automation requires a new and talented workforce. To address these needs at scale there is an increasingly pressing solution:  re-skilling.

Employee Re-skilling is a business-critical success factor 

Hiring has historically been the most common tactic for addressing skills gaps. It is also extremely expensive (as high as 3x a yearly salary according to some models). Contrast that with reskilling which is becoming increasingly cost-effective and scalable. Advancements in technologies and delivery methods have created whole sub-sectors of learning and development that are affordable, easily accessible, and relevant. This has enabled a seismic shift in the way learning is delivered in places ranging from the boardroom to the classroom.

Even before the crisis businesses were beginning to take notice. Chief Learning Officers (CLO) were finding it more cost-effective to skip the executive off-sites in lieu of to train-the-trainer scenarios or cheaper (or free) online paths. They also realized that it's not just about building new skills (skills that can be bought -- and copied -- by competitors) but rather creating whole cultures around learning and incentivizing growth. Closing these knowledge gaps allowed automation to empower, not hinder, their workforce. Employees were tuned in to this as well, with training and development programs routinely identified as one of the most effective ways to retain (and develop) top talent. The current COVID-19 situation has, again, only exacerbated this. A recent Salesforce survey found that almost 60% of employees stated they wish they had a better or more up-to-date skill-set.

So we know gaps exist, and we know both employers and employees want and can benefit from the skills needed to fill these gaps. But exactly what are those skills, and what resources are available to learn them?

The soft and hard skills that matter most in the future 

According to a 2018 World Economic Forum report, of the top 10 emerging jobs in the US only two -- Renewable Energy Engineers and Organizational Development Specialists -- were not directly in the information technology space. Big data, AI, automation, and IoT are all becoming increasingly impactful on businesses (and/or their competitors), accelerating the need for new skills. Hiring managers knew this as well, viewing AI as among the most transformational of all emerging technologies. Data and the analytical empowerment of it is also increasingly no longer viewed as a silo for specialists and data scientists only but rather a democratizing force becoming ubiquitous across every sector of the business. 

We live in a culture of quantifiability, and having an understanding of data will not so much be required as assumed in the near future. Technologies that before were seen by some businesses as merely efficiency add-on's (the agility of the cloud, the dispersion provided by loosely coupled micro-services, and various collaboration tools, to name a few) provided a technological safety net that enabled the rapid response -- and in some cases survival -- of these same businesses. Rapidly reskilling at scale in these areas will help businesses and employees future proof themselves in today's increasingly shifting digital world.

But what resources are available to help businesses and employees do just that? 

Thankfully there are a number of options -- many of them free. Since the worldwide pandemic was announced (March 11, 2020), popular online learning websites like Udemy, EdX, Coursera, and Pluralsight saw Alexa rank jumps as high as 48%. Fully online -- and accredited -- degrees at every collegiate level are increasing as well. Whole course curriculums from Stanford, MIT, and Harvard can be found online. While the long-term impact of COVID-19 on education remains to be seen, there is no doubt that the trend towards online-learning methods will only increase in the near and mid-term.   

Businesses have a responsibility to act as well. Even with the assistance of governments, the pace of transition towards these new skills cannot keep up with the demand. From our own vantage point, Salesforce and Tableau's response has been one of empathy and determination. Salesforce released a COVID-19 Response Playbook to help businesses through the various stages of recovery, along with launching the new Work.com platform -- specifically geared to helping organizations along their journey of re-opening. Re-skilling is prominent in both throughout. Tableau developed its COVID-19 data hub to help businesses analyze data pandemic effectively while offering their eLearning platform for free for 90 days. All of these are empowered by our Communities (Salesforce's Trailhead and Tableau's Tableau Community) which have always placed an emphasis and culture of learning -- for free.

 

Success in the next normal starts with education and reskilling 

There was a need to address the growing skills-gap before COVID-19. Work from home (WFH)  transitions (or work from here), loss of manual labor jobs, a looming recession, and an increased focus on efficient use of technology (especially data) present both unique challenges but also unique opportunities to outline and adapt new skills -- and this was before addressing the  the already elephant in the room: Big Data/AI/the autonomous revolution. Learning in the 21st century is no longer a nice to have but a requirement of relevancy (the average half-life of a job skill is around 5 years). As businesses come back online in this "next normal", giving employees the skills needed to meet these challenges and take advantage of their unique opportunities is now more important than ever.

This article was co-authored by Adam Rauh, lead solutions engineer at TableauSalesforce.

Adam Rauh works as a Lead Solutions Engineer at Tableau where he strives to help customers see and understand their data. Working in the technology industry for over 15 years, he has spoken at or contributed to a variety conferences, seminars, and user-groups across North America on subjects ranging from IT operations, to data analytics and public policy.