Meeting disruption head-on

As technology continues to redefine the workplace, it’s never been more critical to keep skills sharp. Is it time to return to school?

Meeting disruption head-on

As technology continues to redefine the workplace, it’s never been more critical to keep skills sharp. Is it time to return to school?

Eight hundred million jobs could be lost worldwide to automation by 2030. That was the key takeaway from a 2017 McKinsey Global Institute study. Such an eye-catching statistic grabs headlines, even if the reality is rather less dramatic; for, while automation is already eliminating certain jobs, it is also creating many new jobs and simplifying even more of them.

It’s something that Professor Richard R Smith, Deputy Dean of Programmes at the Singapore Management University (SMU) Lee Kong Chian School of Business, has been asked about repeatedly, and he’s mindful of blindly taking such pronouncements at face value.

“The impact is going to be very broad, but it’s evident that automation is creating new opportunities and even enhancing certain jobs. In some ways it’s taking tasks away and in other ways it’s adding new tasks due to the increased focus on data, analytics and insights,” Smith says.

Data-driven HR

For HR professionals, this new focus on data and analytics is akin to a quiet revolution. Smith relays a conversation he recently had with an airline executive. The executive was hailing the power of analytics and how it had transformed the way his business operated. Based on an analysis of its customer profiles, the airline knew how and when people had purchased their tickets and how much food and alcohol to load on board. However, the executive added that there were still around 15 people on each flight who the airline had extremely limited information on: the flight staff.

In all likelihood, such a situation will not last for much longer as employee insights will become as sought after as customer insights.

Future-proofing the workplace

Lifelong education in 2018 has never been more of a two-way dialogue between employer and employee. The onus lies with employees to take more of an interest in their own professional development to ensure they don’t fall behind, as much as it falls on employers to provide support, guidance and advice wherever possible – to ‘future-proof ’ their own employees.

Smith has seen three types of employers. The first is focused on the here and now – they refuse to invest in the skills of their employees because the future is uncertain and a longterm focus will only result in a loss of time, money and resources as employees rapidly move to the next employer.

The second is a traditional approach whereby there is continual investment in employees via internal training and upskilling. The third flips the traditional notion and is more of a hybrid. It has the employees themselves self-driving their careers. The employer doesn’t prescribe training for them but instead provides support, which, rather than monetary support, may take the form of flexible work options to allow for study.

“The employee is in the driving seat; they are selecting what they want to do and the employer is supporting them while allowing them to pick their own paths,” Smith says.

From passive to proactive

Tied to those three approaches is whether or not the organisation takes a proactive and strategic approach to future-proofing its workforce, or whether it takes a more passive, reactive approach. A skills audit is a good place to start.

When Smith talks about strategic talent management in his courses, he emphasises that a critical first step is ‘discovery’.

“Oftentimes organisations don’t know what or who they have in their ranks,” he says. “That’s why LinkedIn is making a killing because they generally have more information about your employees than you do – or it’s more accurate because they have people in their network evaluating and commenting on their skills and capabilities.”

Smith adds that an analysis of internal skills can provide a great basis for strategic workforce planning.

“If you know your objective is to move into the digital space, you can look at your talent and answer whether you are ready for that move or not,” he says. “And if not, what steps must you take to ensure you have those skills?”

He adds that forward-looking employers are implementing a segmented approach to L&D – creating personalised and targeted learning to focus on the unique skill requirements of each worker.

“People are aware of these policies that Google has, whereby 10% of a worker’s time is used for upskilling – but that doesn’t apply to everyone at Google,” Smith says. “That’s just one segment of their workforce. In HR we tend to take a company-wide policy rather than an employee segment policy.”

Two postgrad upskilling options

What can HR do to ensure their own skills remain sharp? Smith suggests two postgraduate programmes offered by SMU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business that can help equip HR professionals to thrive in this digital age.

The first is the Master of Human Capital Leadership, which Smith says is perfect for HR professionals but does not cover traditional HR turf; instead, it requires students to think about human capital as a resource of the organisation. The goal of the program is to prepare future CHROs for operating at the top of their organisations. So while traditional HR topics including executive compensation and evidence-based talent management are covered, so too is financial accounting and finance. These are what Smith describes as “the language of business”.

“This is honestly not about learning operational HR; this is for people who are taking their HR careers to the next level,” Smith says.

The second programme is the Executive MBA, which Smith describes as being well suited to those who are already in a CHRO or senior HR role but are looking for a broader base in the areas of general management and business leadership. Generally, EMBA students have more experience – between 12 and 20 years.

The programme is completed in short segments, conducted around the world. Like those doing the Master of Human Capital Leadership, EMBA students spend time at Wharton Business School in the US, and then also go to China and India.

“It really takes a global perspective on the issues facing business,” says Smith. “While it’s not an HR program, we do find that senior HR leaders get great value from it as they’re looking to further their executive careers.”

Each programme is part-time. The EMBA is a one-year commitment and is done in residential block weeks at SMU, in China, India and the US. These blocks are designed as intense sprints over the year, whereas the Master of Human Capital Leadership includes classes over a period of 15 months.

Not surprisingly, both programmes have a practical focus, with assignments and projects based on real-life work challenges.

“We make sure we’re grounded in research and current thinking but also make it practical and hands-on,” Smith says. “What you see and hear in the classroom one day, you take into the workplace the next.”

 As SMU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business moves towards the introduction of blended learning – a mix of in-person classroom and online content delivery – Smith says digital “isn’t something we just teach, it’s something we do”.

“We’re supporting the move to blended learning because we can’t just be preaching about digital; we need to be doing it ourselves. This is the future,” he says.

SMU plans to introduce more blended learning course modules in the coming year.

SMU LEE KONG CHIAN SCHOOL OF BUSINESS: Ranked third in Asia and 35th worldwide in the University of Texas - Dallas rankings (based on research contributions for the period 2013–17), the Lee Kong Chian School of Business (LKCSB) at SMU is one of the youngest business schools in the world to be triple-accredited with the AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), EQUIS (European Quality Improvement System) and AMBA (Association of MBAs). With more than 4,000 students and over 100 full-time faculty members holding doctorate degrees from renowned universities such as Cornell, Harvard, INSEAD, Oxford, Stanford and Yale, LKCSB offers undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programmes and is affiliated with a number of research centres, such as the Sim Kee Boon Institute for Financial Economics, the Centre for Marketing Excellence and the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. For further information, visit

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