Accelerating workforce reskilling

Board advisor to Laurence Smith says we can't fight the technological revolution, but we can embrace it - through development of a digital mindset.
By: | April 25, 2017

In my recent learnings I came across two provocative quotes that really got me thinking:


“Technology steals jobs – that’s why it’s good!” and If artificial intelligence can diagnose cancer and save lives better than humans, is it justified to resist technology to save jobs?”

Both came from Brian Solis, futurist and author of X: The Experience When Business Meets Design.

Presumably one can say the same thing about driverless vehicles, since human driven vehicles kill 1.25 million people a year. And while autonomous vehicles are sure to have some accidents while the technology is improved, there are some commentators that expect Singapore to be the first to actually enforce driverless vehicles as a way of saving lives. But this will still impact drivers, taxi companies, and even insurance companies!

So here’s the problem – no technology has ever been un-invented.

Just ask the fictitious Ned Ludd of the infamous 19th Century Luddite movement, who went around smashing the machines. Or, for that matter, ask Parisian taxi drivers whose demonstrations against Uber, gave the ride-sharing brand a massive 10-times (completely unintended) boost in new users.

Yet technology only seems to be accelerating and becoming ever harder for humans to adapt to. Here’s an insightful chart that illustrates this from Tom Friedman’s latest book Thank You for Being Late. It comes from his conversation with Astro Teller, GoogleX’s “Captain of Moonshots”. Astro was explaining that while environmental and technological complexity is changing at exponential rates, our organisations are only changing incrementally. They are largely held back by bureaucracy, the understandable human fear of the unknown, but also by our failure to learn better as organisations and to share our learnings.


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So if technology is accelerating faster than people’s ability to understand and assimilate it, how do we close the gap? If we cannot slow down technology, how can we accelerate our understanding and adoption of technology? How do we move the mass of the organisation, or the workforce, just a few points higher on the adoption curve, and just a little faster?   


Digital skills are the new literacy

Many years ago in his best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Steven Covey wrote about “sharpening the saw” – the need to continuously develop and improve ourselves.

If you think about it, even most of our hobbies are about developing our expertise or competence in something, whether it is sailing, cake-making, or stamp collecting. So why is it so hard for more than a few people to get excited about the future? About technology? And about what’s coming next?

I think that’s exactly the reason why: what’s coming next?

It is unknown, and humans naturally fear the unknown – we all do. We don’t know the consequences of a new technology or idea; we don’t know how we’ll adapt; we don’t know how we will continue to be successful and provide for our families.

We need to remove that fear. And we need to develop “confidence” before we can think about “capabilities”.


Curiosity comes before confidence. Confidence comes before capabilities.

Running and hiding won’t work. Striking or demonstrating won’t work long-term. Even if you ban the technology here, other countries will simply say “thank you”, develop it themselves, and then come back and steal the jobs that could have been developed by our own companies.

So here’s the billion dollar question – How can we make the future less scary? How can we de-risk engaging with what comes next? How can we create a culture of curiosity, of people who want to understand what comes next, and indeed even want to help shape the future?

Think of how babies and toddlers engage with the world. They explore, they touch, they play, they experiment. As we get older we don’t lose that inherent curiosity – just look at our hobbies or reading habits. But we do largely learn to switch it off at work.

What we need is to make learning fun again.

Digital mindset comes before digital capabilities

I’ve recently seen organisations as diverse as a major regional bank, a local telco, a global real estate firm, and a major European chemical company experiment and innovate with learning as something fun.

These are large and very commercial organisations – but they realised that a ‘digital mindset’ was not something that could be “taught” in a classroom, but people could be encouraged to develop it, and that would increase the digital capabilities of the organisation as a whole.

You’ve just got to remove the fear, and add in the fun!

In each case, the process was part of a journey to developing a ‘digital mindset’ in their organisation’s employees. Not ‘technical skills’ per se, but more a broad and holistic understanding of the digital world: How Uber really works, what is this AirBnB thing we keep hearing about? Is AI really going to steal our jobs? And who is AI anyway? How does it work? Do we have to be scared of it, or can it be fun, useful even?

And could it actually make our jobs easier and our lives better?

These ‘initiatives’* were all run as campaigns, challenges, or competitions. There was no talk of ‘workforce re-skilling,’ ‘future proofing’, or ‘training.’ These were simply fun competitions with short, easy-to-enjoy stories, and insights on how tomorrow’s world is working today. And because it was a gamified process, the majority of people enjoyed playing with the content and ended up learning and absorbing quite a bit about the technologies re-shaping society and the world of business.

So alongside the critical initiatives from SkillsFuture and the report from the Committee for the Future Economy, we need to remove the fear of the unknown and stimulate people’s curiosity to learn about, and engage with the trends and technologies shaping our jobs and organisations – and the world our children will grow up in. How else will we advise and guide them

As the machines would say, “resistance is futile”. But imagine for a moment, a world where we do understand these trends and technologies, and can leverage them in our workplaces and organisations.

What a wonderful world this could be*.

* Since writing this, many people have asked “how” we can make this transition. I will share here that all the companies mentioned above use an innovative new mobile micro-learning platform called that has over 600 five minute ‘modules’ on future tech, innovation and entrepreneurship. And because it’s fun content and gamified, people love to use it and build up their digital mindset. Disclaimer: I am a member of SmartUp’s advisory board.


Laurence Smith is the host of HRM Asia’s Digital Mindset forum, and regularly contributes articles on how technology is changing the way workforces, and HR, operate.