Paul Healy on future-proofing your business
Paul Healy, chief executive of Skillnets. Image: Skillnets

Investment in skills is the key to future-proofing businesses

10 Jan 2018

With automation creeping into most future-of-work conversations, how can businesses ensure they future-proof themselves and their staff? Skillnets’ Paul Healy has some ideas.

In recent years, there have been countless dystopian think pieces painting a foreboding view of the future of work, where millions of jobs will disappear due to increasing automation. While some of this hand-wringing is of course speculative, it has its roots in a very real future.

A recent OECD report showed that more than 30pc of Irish workers are in jobs that are vulnerable to automation. Alongside technology, sectors such as manufacturing, food processing and agriculture are likely to see quite significant disruption.

Regardless of what kind of new technologies will emerge, we will need to adapt, upskill and perhaps reinvent the roles in our businesses if we want to compete.

This idea of being ‘replaced by machines’ is not new. In fact, every great innovation in work has been enabled in one way or another by technology, and this extends right back to the earliest farmers.

Plenty of industries that were once a staple of the economy have evolved, while others have disappeared entirely with new technological breakthroughs. Now, tasks that are routine, repetitive and requiring high levels of attention to detail are likely to give way to automation.

The key to surviving and thriving in this environment is firstly to embrace these advances, and then invest in the resilience, adaptability and skills of your workforce.

SMEs form the backbone of the Irish economy and account for 69pc of all employment. Our future prosperity and the ongoing competitive advantage that we draw from our workforce is predicated on a robust supply of skills and talent.

Therefore, in the context of these sweeping disruptions, a constant focus is needed on the talent agenda with SMEs, both at policy level and, of course, in the firm itself.

Meeting challenges of the future

The most recent Competitiveness Scorecard for Ireland noted that facilitating workplace innovation and delivering an uplift in management skills is vital for our competitiveness. Leadership, complex problem-solving and innovation are particularly prized.

It is also understood that management development creates a powerful multiplier effect, in that leaders that undergo training themselves are much more likely to invest in the development of their teams.

Most Irish businesses recognise the value of lifelong learning and skills development but, in practice, investing in the training of staff is often not prioritised and perhaps even viewed as a luxury. Industry disrupters such as robotics, cobotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and additive manufacturing are coming at us, whether we like it or not.

Recently, the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs identified ‘third-platform’ technologies as developments that will have the biggest impact on the businesses within the technology sector in the future.

These include: cloud computing, mobile devices and technologies, the internet of things (IoT), big-data analytics, social technologies, AI, advanced robotics, 3D printing, augmented/virtual reality, and cybersecurity.

Anyone in the technology sector and beyond needs to engage with how these changes may impact on their future business model and talent requirements.

While businesses (especially SMEs) often tell us how important training is to them in theory, there are very real barriers in terms of access. Most commonly, barriers of time, location and cost discourage companies from training their staff.

Addressing the skills gap in your company

So, how do you as a business owner begin to address this in your own company?

First of all, business owners should conduct a skills audit in their company. This simple task of assessing what skills your company has, needs and will need in the future can provide valuable insight into where you must look for upskilling.

Finding and solving these gaps will have quick and tangible results for your bottom line, and will stand you in good stead as we face exceptional pace of change in the rapidly evolving world of work. Secondly, business owners should avail of all the supports available.

As you look forward to the year ahead, you’ll be planning how to increase your own skills, or nurture and grow your company. Everyone in the IT sector should consider how to ensure you continually check in on your skillsets, ensuring you are bullet-proofing yourself for the future.

By Paul Healy

Paul Healy is the chief executive of Skillnets. Skillnets is a national agency with responsibility for the promotion and facilitation of workforce learning. It actively supports and works with businesses in Ireland to address their current and future skills needs through learning networks.

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