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News & opinion

26 MAR 2020

How workplace skills could adapt for new technology

The start of a new decade sees the built environment sector on the brink of upheaval. Big data, AI, the internet of things: new technologies are emerging at breakneck speed. You might think that the answer to navigating this change is to rush to action. However, the message from my colleagues at Saïd Business School is: “Slow down and find space to think.”

The CEO Report, which we published in 2015 with Heidrick & Struggles, is based on interviews with more than 150 CEOs. The research shows that although it may feel as if the world is changing faster than ever before, your business, or even parts of your profession, aren’t necessarily changing at the same pace. And some areas aren’t changing at all.

How leaders think about the pace of change affects how they go about acquiring the necessary skills within the organisation. The choice is ultimately to develop skills in house or gain them via recruitment – a particularly tough decision for professional firms, which are traditionally dominated by a professional workforce. Whichever option a leader chooses, they may find it radically challenges the firm’s identity, governance, regulation and professional jurisdiction.

New hires with new skills may initially feel like misfits because their expertise has not traditionally been valued by the profession. If they are introducing new technology, they will be disrupting how others work. As one of the report’s authors, Dr Michael Smets, says: “You have a new workforce trying to change how the organisation operates. That won’t be easy.”

Not only that, but all of your existing performance, promotion, remuneration and career systems will be geared towards the professionals in the firm, and they won’t fit your new recruits and their skills. You will also be asking existing leaders, who have risen through the firm on the basis of their own professional expertise, to lead new staff with unfamiliar skills and who know more than they do. Many experts might be deeply uncomfortable to discover they’re no longer the smartest person in the room.

So, there are clear advantages to developing new expertise in house. And Smets says that while it may be slower, “embedding it is quicker as new experts can draw on their existing credibility”. Technical experts below partner level can play a critical role, as they help to connect the old and the new, providing the connectivity and credibility that newcomers lack.
Moving forward, it is important to acknowledge that technological change is a leadership issue. You can’t devolve it to people with “digital” in their job title, sit back and expect everything to go swimmingly. Introducing new technologies requires new people, and new people need new career structures. New career structures require new incentives, which in turn change the identity of the firm, and even the profession.

The challenge goes beyond what you might think of as standard change or transformational leadership. It requires openness to the possibilities of technology and the “savviness” to spot them, even when you do not have technical expertise yourself. Most of all, it requires a deep humanity and sensitivity to the people you’re leading, both traditional professionals and the new breed of experts.

  • This article originally appeared in the February edition of Modus