People and skills gap

What digital means to people and culture

The shift to digital is a boon for industry, creating a host of new opportunities and efficiencies, but it is also creating a demand for new skills at a time when businesses already face considerable skills gaps.

While many of these are the obvious technology-based skills that you would expect, others are skills that are ”softer” and less evident.

Among the technology trends that are gaining traction in infrastructure are big data, the spread of the Industrial Internet of Things, and advanced predictive analytics. The sector is also having to get to grips with the increasing automation of processes and developments, such as the use of drones, satellites and other tools for remote surveying and monitoring.

Keeping up with these and other developments is vital, says Sharron Pamplin, Atkins’ UK & Europe Human Resources (HR) Director: “We have an internal mantra at Atkins – ‘Don’t wait to be disrupted’. We are doing a lot of thinking about what the future will look like and what that will mean for our people and our business.” Atkins now finds itself working more closely with customers, co-creating and developing new solutions using techniques such as hackathons, lock-downs, and 100-day sprints. “We are learning together with our customers,” Pamplin says.

As a result, the way the firm looks at HR has changed, she adds. “We’re now doing HR from the outside in, focusing on the value HR work creates not only for those inside the organisation but customers, investors, and others outside the organisation.”

This shift demands a change in culture in a range of areas, not least in getting used to new business models. Whereas in the past, it was all about time on the job and materials used, “Now we are thinking about end-customer value and ways to use ‘risk and reward’ profit sharing,” Pamplin explains.

This can require new ways of collaborating, not just with clients but also with those clients’ other suppliers. “It’s a huge cultural change because we are reliant on other organisations for our success. Our success or failure is completely aligned with the end product that we all produce together.”

Another cultural shift that will be required in the new digital reality is a change in the relationship with data. Anne Kemp, a Technical Director in Atkins’ Infrastructure division, says that everyone must now take ownership of data, rather than it being solely the responsibility of the “techies.” “There has been a lot of focus on the drudgery of data rather than on its value, and the fact is that we need to treat it right so that we can extract from it the information that is useful,” she says. “Everyone needs to appreciate data and how valuable it can be.”

Part of this is about democratising data by making it available to everyone. “Knowledge shared is power,” Pamplin says, but Kemp adds that there must be a balance between this openness and having safeguards in place to ensure that people use the data appropriately and securely while also complying with all the relevant rules and regulations.

Employees also need to know the importance of using the right procedures to ensure that data is accurate and reliable. Concepts such as digital twins and 3D representations of buildings are very powerful, but thought needs to be given to the issues that arise from moving from presenting data in 2D to doing so in 3D. “Is there a danger of misinterpreting an image or, by contrast, trusting an image too much, rather than employing the fundamentals of your training?” Kemp asks. “We need to be clear about what is happening with technical assurance, what needs to be scrutinised, verified and agreed upon. With things like digital twins, we need to be clear who is responsible for keeping them up to date. If they are not accurate, the consequences could be really serious.”

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The technology that is available is generally ahead of people’s current skill levels, she adds, particularly when it comes to collaboration. The key to successful collaboration is trust, and this can be problematic when people are approaching projects with differing objectives, skillsets and expectations. “Providing a framework which allows a wider perspective to take account of these differences allows us to find a way into the problem, and to start to develop a common language,” Kemp says.

The need to consider these issues is leading to a fundamental reappraisal of the skills and people that companies need, and even of the nature of work.

Firms need to ask what digital will mean to their staffing strategies – will they need more or fewer people?

What new skills and specialist knowledge will be needed, what processes and systems and what attitudes, behaviours and ways of working?

Once these requirements have been identified, you need to work out where you are going to get these skills and capabilities and what the balance is between hiring them in and developing them in-house. This includes identifying those individuals that will be your “critical value generators” and nurturing and developing them.

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Dr Anne Kemp
Technical Director, Infrastructure

But there is also a need, having identified skills shortages, to look at “cross-skilling” to update the skills of those long-serving employees who are in danger of being left behind by technological advances.

Companies also need to widen the talent pool, not just in terms of gender and race but also in terms of skills. The advent of virtual and augmented reality is going to mean that gaming skills, for example, will be much in demand.

“We recognise that digital is the future of work,” says Pamplin. “We need everyone because there is a skills shortage and a people shortage. And diversity leads to a more innovative, customer-focused organisation.”

Yet it is equally important to ensure that we are the masters of technology rather than the other way around. “Often in our relationship with technology, when it first emerges, the technology starts out as the parent and we act as the child. We need to have an adult-to-adult relationship with it, to ensure that we are using technology to help with the task in hand rather than for its own sake,” Kemp says.