Written by Michael Sippitt and

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Leadership was never so challenging. Steering through a fast-changing economic landscape needs a strong sense of direction, and the pace of change is now extraordinary.

In deep history, the human condition barely changed. Life was constant through generations. Our necessity was to acquire and maintain survival skills, but then it was, in effect, job done. Now the human workforce has to evolve. Here Michael Sippitt, Chairman of Clarkslegal and Director of Forbury People Limited, explains why leaders must cope with shifting global and political landscapes, innovative technologies, changing expectations of workers, life changing AI and robotics, and of course legal and social expectations of how workers should be treated.

Our evolution so far is in truth coming around to bite us. The demand for key skills in the workforce is outstripping supply, and our brains cannot keep up with the technological advances that we have created.

Technology, the product of human inventiveness, is now destroying it. Workers are becoming reliant on smart devices thinking for them. Robots will also increasingly offer manual dexterity skills. The future human will not be the same as earlier generations, for better or worse.

Leaders face the challenge of trying to predict what skills will be needed in future for their business, who will have them or ability to learn them?

How long will anyone be suited to the job they are recruited to as it changes?
Migration is one answer to addressing skills gaps while demography is working against developed countries. Ageing economies struggle to fill the job vacancies, and political success seems generally to depend on reducing immigration. Political and business interests often conflict.

The global jobs picture is dire as most traditional low paid work in developing countries, often still lacking good education and internet access, could be displaced within a generation.

The task of adapting to rapid change is hard enough in developed countries with good resources and educational systems. Much of the world starts from a far lower base, unable to cope where the traditional work has been automated.

The Global Commission on the Future of Work, set up by the International Labour Organisation, recently delivered its report comprehensively pointing out major threats to decent work across the world and, importantly, a call for global collaborative response in this era of fundamental disruption. The Commission concludes that the issues around future work matter to people everywhere on our planet and to the planet itself. We ignore such issues at our peril.

It is a critical element of all transformation, even with innovative technologies, to promote a human centric culture in which the business keeps the trust of its evolving workforce. While future technology may transform business models, interim success in recruitment and retention must measure people’s skills against technological change, redefine jobs and reskill workers, promoting credible shared values to live and work by. Longer term strategies must match markets and resources foreseeably required in new industries, trends in the digital economy that will shape success in coming decades, and choosing new brains for new skills, equipping them for prolonged learning and periodic rebooting.

Retirement thinking should yield to incentivising and enabling fresh starts and new skills, but wider appreciation where most young people will be this century is essential. Certainly not in Europe or the US. Think Africa.

Putting at least some work where people live is easier in the digital age, and some developing countries have exemplary programmes to adopt new technology. They welcome investment and in truth if jobs are not there the young people migrate and create a different crisis. Robots will be part of the future workforce, but without adequate decent work there will be fewer customers for what they make. As the Global Commission recommends, global thinking is required. Everything is connected and wide perspectives must be sought out.

Current success should not obstruct change. Success has a sell-by-date, and planning for a sustainable business requires seeing the future best we can.

The point of enterprise, strangely enough, is not just about profit. It is, and has always been, the driver of co-operation and mutual interest across tribes, cultures, nations and continents. The winners in this century will be the leaders who stretch to see the patterns of change and opportunity.

13th March 2019