In January, World Economic Forum delegates descended upon Davos to hear how the fourth industrial revolution is distrupting whole sectors and changing the workforce forever.
While steam engines were the driving force of the first industrial revolution, the fourth is characterised by a fusion of technologies that are blurring the lines between the physical and digital worlds. Sounding almost like a Darwinian prophecy, the forum concluded that companies failing to adapt to the evolving technological landscape are fated to fade into obscurity. “Keeping up with technology has become a necessity for businesses to have an advantage and remain competitive,” says Neil Owen, director at Robert Half Technology, the IT recruitment agency.
The firm recently interviewed more than 100 senior IT executives, 94% of whom believed business growth in the coming years would be driven by technologies that boost employee efficiency and customer experiences. “Technology is a business enabler,” continues Owen. “Tech is at the front end, driving business insights through big data and real-time information.”
However, innovations such as the internet of things, virtual reality and robotics – not to mention the increasing need for cyber security – don’t just require business leaders to invest in tech. Their workforces need to level up as well. “It is incredibly important for employers to ensure all staff members are up to date with the latest technologies,” says Steve Hill, director of external engagement at the Open University. “If startups don’t have a tech-savvy workforce, their costs will increase, their productivity will drop and they’ll fall behind the competition.” Ultimately, tooling up your staff with tech will turn your enterprise into a well-oiled machine. “Technology can make your business operate more smoothly and increase profitability if you have the knowhow to use it in the right way,” says Nick Yockney, head of people at Property Partner, the property-crowdfunding startup.
While the importance of having a tech-savvy workforce is undisputed, recruiting one is easier said than done. To prepare for the rise of the machines, Owen advises founders to define exactly which tech skills their companies need from candidates. “Different roles require different skills so it is really important that hiring and onboarding processes identify the skill set they’ll require,” he explains.
Yet, relying on recruitment to build a team of tech savants isn’t always the best strategy. “The costs of bringing on new members of staff – both in terms of the time required and productivity losses involved in bringing people up to speed – are huge,” says Hill.
Of course, some entrepreneurs may argue that they are already prepared for the brave new world of robotics, autonomous services and cyber-physical systems. But while startups tend to hire tech-savvy staff members, a person’s proficiency can differ greatly depending on their background. “Our staff who are in their mid-30s and younger, they pick up these things really easily because they’ve grown up with it,” says Yockney. “Our more senior staff do get it but they just need it explained to them.”
This relationship may urge entrepreneurs to drag the talent pool for faces fresh out of university. However, given the increasing demand for tech-savvy employees and the fact that that universities aren’t educating enough students to overcome the skills shortage, startups might not be able to rely on recruiting young candidates for much longer. “There simply won’t be enough school leavers,” says Hill.
Given the widening tech-talent gap and the expense of attracting new staff, startups might consider alternative avenues when it comes to boosting their workforce’s tech-savviness. “Employers need to engage their employees and not see it as a problem that can be rectified by recruiting new staff,” says Hill. “Organisations must focus on lifelong training across their workforce instead of relying on younger individuals coming into the company to solve technology problems.”
Not only does training staff to use tech help future-proof startups but it also improves employee retention. “Once a startup has recruited a highly skilled individual, they want to retain them,” explains Hill. “If those individuals don’t believe they’re getting the relevant training, then they’ll leave to find an organisation willing to invest in them.”
However, bringing your workforce through the fourth industrial revolution also relies on the technology that the business uses and, more importantly, what solutions staff members actually need to do their jobs. “The biggest mistake entrepreneurs make is that they focus on the technology without thinking about how it is going to be applied,” says Chris Herbert, co-founder and CEO of TrackR, the item-tracking platform.
In other words, a tech-savvy workforce is worthless without the right tech in place. Herbert learned that lesson the hard way when the company tried to implement Salesforce without checking if the software was what the employees really needed. “None of our salesguys used it because they hated it,” he laughs. “It didn’t solve any problems.”
In order to make the most out of the staff, leaders are advised to involve their employees in the decisions as to which technology to invest in and explain how they’ll benefit from the new tech. “We take them back to the 1950s and show how the process would look like without the tech,” explains Herbert. The idea is that once staff understand how new tech has made secretaries, filling cabinets and switchboard operators redundant, then they can fully appreciate how it will benefit them. “If you give a high-tech workforce the knowledge it needs to fully understand how technology has changed the process, then you get incredible results,” he continues.
Still, swapping an old piece of tech with a new one will unavoidably require some getting used to for employees. While productivity may drop during the adaptation period, it is important that entrepreneurs give their staff continuous training or risk seeing workers revert back to the old system. “There is no silver bullet,” says Herbert. “It takes time.”
Ultimately, investing in tech and the knowhow required to use it enables startups to succeed in the marketplace and leave the competition shrinking in their rear-view mirrors. The alternative for entrepreneurs is finding themselves left behind in the rubble from the fourth industrial revolution. “You simply can’t afford to fall behind if you want to remain viable in the marketplace,” concludes Hill.