Recently, business media coverage has shifted from a heavy focus on the effectiveness of new technologies to a growing emphasis on the qualifications of the people who will use those tools most effectively. The lens has been recalibrated—away from which products, platforms, and algorithms make artificial intelligence (AI) and intelligent automation (IA) smarter and faster and toward the skill sets, attributes, and learning needs of the workforces that will leverage them.
What do leaders need to know to get in front of the many challenges posed by the fourth industrial revolution? Get acquainted with both the technological and the human capabilities that will shape our future. Although smart machines will get better at performing tasks, we still need really good people to draw on their domain knowledge to make sound ethical decisions and to ask the right questions.
Aligning People, Machines, and Transformative Processes
In studying a wide range of companies grappling with the new wave of technological innovation, futurist and author Jacob Morgan found that the most successful ones always put strategy ahead of technology decisions. For our firm, EY, as part of our Reimagining the Future of Work initiative, this has meant implementing a “talent-first” strategy to help guide adoption of AI and IA tools. Improved productivity and new services are important, of course, but we are a people business, so our objective has been to find the best technology tools while adding value for our professionals.
Regardless of what industry you are in, we believe organizational leaders need to understand and value both the unique skills and passions of people and the transformative potential of technology. This includes aligning business and talent missions and ensuring talent and operations speed along parallel and mutually beneficial tracks. After all, the best collaborative technologies and platforms are useless if your people are not using them, if they can’t see the value these tools deliver and pass that value on to their internal and external stakeholders.
Why Has People Engagement Become So Important?
Anyone leading change in an organization knows that people naturally resist new things. But in driving home a new technological vision, it is more important than ever to ensure that your employees are buying in. Employees perform better during change when they understand why change is happening. In today’s working world, employees want a sense of purpose to shape their careers and they want to have influence and flexibility over how they adapt to change.
Millennials and Generation Z are intricately linked to technology as part of their identity. The ability to share their personas and handle every day-to-day need with technology demands a more hands-on relationship.
As a result, the fourth industrial revolution is producing a new set of rules for transformation:
- This is the first time we are experiencing a collaborative relationship with our new technologies, and that reality changes just about everything relevant to how we choose, introduce, and use them.
- The impact of disruptive forces—technological, economic, and demographic—on our people compels a new look at professional skill sets, workforce models, and even how we deal with distraction, stress, and complexity, issues that were not so prominent when personal computers and internet access first emerged.
Let’s take a closer look at these differences and how we can address them.
Collaboration with machines. The assembly-line robots and personal computers that distinguished the last two industrial revolutions were not the “collaborative” machine partners of today. In the past, people worked on machines—programming and keyboarding them, for example. But AI and IA technologies are about working with them. While we’ve interacted with technology tools and each other over the past two decades through email and web conferencing networks, apps, search engine research, and software programs, the difference today is that machines have become much more than a support system. We are partnering with them, integrating them into the flow of our work.
Collaborative technologies are only as good as how well people accept and use them. We believe our approach at EY—marked by the fusion of people and technology—helps to make our culture more flexible, adaptive, and innovative for the long term. Robotic process automation or RPA bots take on repetitive, mundane tasks associated with high-volume compliance work such as data entry, filing, and retrieval. These steps are essential to delivering a high-quality compliance project, but they are not high on the list of ways most humans like to spend their time.
By having the bots fulfill these steps, you free up the time and focus of talented professionals for more strategic and purposeful work. At EY, we further challenged our people through internal competitions to devise even more ways to leverage machines for what bots do best while allowing our teams to target activities they are uniquely qualified to handle and enjoy mastering. When you take the robot out of the person, you positively influence how employees view their machine counterparts; we found they came to regard them as collegial peers, often assigning them names and referring to them as their machine “colleagues.”
New professional skills and workforce models. As technology developments influence the tools and services of the tax profession and the products and services we all provide, the transformation also requires us to redefine the successful tax professional of the future.
This redefinition will occur on three important levels: 1) the learning and skill sets employees bring to the job and develop with training and experience; 2) the attitudes, personal qualities, and mindsets they possess; and 3) the workforce model they prefer to pursue. While deep tax technical expertise and domain knowledge will remain essential to a tax professional’s career success, improvements in flexible work methods and productivity are resulting in new ways to think about workforce-of-the-future capabilities and work styles.
Millennials are about sixty percent of our workforce today, and since most in that age range gained their college and graduate degrees during the STEM movement in education, we see a fair number of science and technology majors mixed in with the more traditional accounting, finance, and business backgrounds among new recruits. But we believe a wider, more diverse range of disciplines needs to be added to the original STEM equation, including economics, law, and liberal arts, among others. This is part of an overall redefining and broadening of the skill sets needed to take on higher-level problem-solving and planning roles. These capabilities go beyond dealing with new technologies and extend to other changes in the business environment, such as the effects of industry convergence, new business models and competitors, and continued globalization.
In addition, the trend toward STEM—important ten to twenty years ago as workplace technology was on the rise—now needs to be balanced with a greater focus on other essential skills, including:
- critical thinking;
- strategic planning;
- negotiation and business diplomacy skills;
- data analytics and visualization; and
- project management.
Critical thinking tops the list, because it is central to the assessments and analysis tax people use to get to the “why,” to deconstruct issues and solve problems. Sixty percent of hiring managers in a recent Indeed.com survey said a continuing shortage of soft skills among job candidates is limiting their companies’ productivity. A similar study by LinkedIn noted that soft-skill demand remains largely unmet. Since the solution does not seem to be coming to us, we need to drive the way forward—both when developing internal training programs and when collaborating with educational institutions.
Today’s tax executives can and should start now to look at the new wave of technological innovation with fresh perspectives on what it means for their people, including how collaboration with new technology tools can add value.
Emerging Workforce Models
With the time gained from more comprehensive technology support, organizations have the opportunity to review how they deploy people as a workforce. To the traditional nine-to-five, in-office workforce, we can now add “anywhere, anytime” concepts—virtual and contingent employees and contractors such as gig and crowdsourced workforces. These new ways of working make a great fit with millennial and Gen-Z preferences for more flexibility in their work lives and the opportunity to explore new career paths for growth and success.
Mindful Revolution Meets Technological Revolution
New technologies have also brought some challenging sociological and psychological issues, including a major increase in distractions and stress. There’s a lot competing for our attention, and research shows the average human attention span has declined by thirty-three percent since 2000, from twelve seconds down to eight.
As we address overstimulation and hyperconnectivity, we assign greater importance to clarity, deep thought, and reflection. The type of work we do requires focus, often intense periods of cognitive effort, and, according to many mind clarity experts, having an unfettered ability to “go deep” helps us to master complicated information faster and ultimately adds more value to the work being performed. For EY, this is one of our newer areas of exploration, but we’re making changes where we think new concepts can help. The introduction of wellness and mindfulness programs across our office network, for example, has been well received, and we’ve added benefits programs offering personal and family support services.
Converting Understanding to Action
These challenges need to be attacked from multiple angles. When it comes to upskilling, new training curricula and types of blended learning must be introduced for both new and experienced employees. In addition, members of senior management may need to get introduced to disruptive thinking concepts that will help build awareness of the important changes that may be going on around us.
What matters most is that those who can make a difference in preparing for the new order—continued technology developments, reshaping of skills, work models, and mindsets—are asking the right questions, exploring the best possibilities, and staying open to new opportunities that will help them respond effectively to the needs of their people and ultimately their clients.
Today’s tax executives can and should start now to look at the new wave of technological innovation with fresh perspectives on what it means for their people, including how collaboration with new technology tools can add value. The fact is, the big changes are no longer coming. They are here, and the companies that devise strategies that inspire optimism rather than fear are the most likely to maintain first-mover advantage and actually help transform their industries. Position your employees to lead your technological journey, not fall behind struggling.
Editor’s Note: The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of Ernst & Young LLP or any other member firm of the global Ernst & Young organization.
Martin Fiore is tax talent leader at EY Americas.