Written by
Karam Filfilan

Published
26 Mar 2018

Making technology work for all

26 Mar 2018 • by Karam Filfilan

In Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning film I, Daniel Blake, the titular Daniel is a 59 year old joiner living alone in Newcastle. After a heart attack, Daniel is signed off work by his doctor, but is told by the Department for Work and Pensions, at a work capability assessment, that if he doesn’t look for work, his benefits will be stopped.

The problem for Daniel is that all his job applications, assessments and claims must be done online. And Daniel has no computer and definitely no smartphone. He manages to get onto a computer at his library, but the internet crashes. When he asks for help at the Job Centre, a consultant is reprimanded for daring to go through the form with him. I won’t spoil the film, but his inability to penetrate the inflexibility of the ‘system’ means things don’t end well for him. 

Lack of basic digital skills

According to the Office for National Statistics, 5.3 million adults in the UK (approximately 10% of our population) have never used the internet. Almost double (11.5 million) are classified as not having basic digital skills, defined by the Tech Partnership (a network of leading employers including Google, Microsoft and Fujitsu) as “the ability to manage information, communicate, transact and problem solve". Many of these people are among the most disadvantaged in society, including those with disabilities, the economically disenfranchised and older people.

At the same time, technological advances threaten the jobs we do have. The Institute for Public Policy Research forecasts that some 44% of UK jobs could disappear by 2030 due to automation, while globally, management consulting firm McKinsey estimates that between 400-800 million people will be forced to find new jobs, with 375 million needing to switch to new careers.

The turmoil created by technological change is undeniable. But with it comes the opportunity to craft new working lives that are inclusive for all. To do so, business leaders will need to stand up and take control of how we use technology for the greater good of both their business and wider society. But how can they do this in practical terms?

What is good work?

Perhaps the best place to start is with the principle of work itself. As technology continues to distort and morph the way we work, we find ourselves asking what ‘good work’ looks like. Despite headlines that focused on the gig economy, this was the driver behind Royal Society for Arts chief executive Matthew Taylor’s review into modern working practices last year. Taylor believes that pessimism about technology reflects disaffection among the workforce.

“What worries me about the discourse around technology is that it’s dystopian and disempowering,” he says. “There’s this idea that people say ‘technology means that 30% of jobs will go’ and we have no choice but to go along with it; that whatever Google and Facebook want to do, they can, regardless of what it means for jobs or the tax system. No. We have to assert that technology must be judged on whether it contributes to human wellbeing.

“People worry about power. We live in a society that is very unequal and where power is concentrated,” he continues. “So who gets to decide where this power is applied? If it’s Amazon, or Uber, we could be in trouble, because, so far, they have demonstrated that maximising profits is at the front of their mind, not creating fulfilling jobs. What people see is companies using technology to serve their purposes.”

For Taylor, good work is all about jobs that are fair and decent, with scope for personal development. Technology – whether through automation’s ability to remove the drudgery from some tasks, or digital platforms such as Deliveroo providing flexibility for workers – has the ability to elevate the quality and productivity of the tasks we do, but only if we embrace it.

This chance to elevate work is one all HR leaders should welcome. As we continue, as a function, to push our case for strategic partnership, this is a chance to prove we can give our businesses the most powerful tool possible: an upskilled, future-proof workforce. But as the pace of technological change accelerates, how can we ensure we’re pinpointing the right skills?

CIPD chief executive, Peter Cheese, agrees with Taylor that business leaders should be using technology to support employees, rather than allowing it to set the agenda.

“If you look at the history of technology in the workplace, it hasn’t always brought benefits,” he acknowledges. “What I find intriguing about the world of work is that we’re increasingly talking about the importance of human skills – critical thinking, judgement, ethics – but these are skills we haven’t always valued.

“We do have agency in these [technological] advances, so HR needs work closely with the people developing these tools to ensure we create a world where people can work effectively alongside technology, not be consumed by it.”

To do so, Cheese believes the UK needs to marry the ongoing development of uniquely human qualities with a more honest discussion about future skills requirements. While we cannot fully forecast the jobs of the future, we can make informed guesses about the sort of skills we’ll need to succeed at work and to meet the demands of clients and customers. 

Leading digital change

One sector that has had to adapt quickly to technological change is banking. Walk into any high-street bank today – if you can find one – and it is unrecognisable from 15 years ago, with fewer cashiers and new booths directed towards online or automated phone banking. According to a study conducted in 2016 by the British Bankers’ Association (now UK Finance), bank branches have seen a 32% decline in visits this decade, with an average of just 71 customer visits each day. Conversely, payments via apps grew 54% in 2015. This has required a steep evolution in the skills needed in the industry, with most of it driven by customer behaviour.

“Organisations are looking at the impact of digital advances internally, through the skills and jobs they’re going to have, but also in terms of their customer base. Banks are very good at looking at how they have to engage differently with their customers in the digital world,” says Cheese.

Barclays is one of the banks leading the digital charge in the UK (see page 20). Embracing rather than fearing the changing nature of banking, and keen to ensure nobody is left behind in the digital revolution, Barclays is upskilling its people and customers, with the aim of becoming the “most digitally savvy workforce in UK retail”.

Barclays has created a range of tools and programmes to help build the UK’s digital skills – from coding courses for children to its Digital Eagles initiative, which allows Barclays customers to learn internet skills from its staff, such as setting up email accounts or online banking.

Employees undertake in-house training, the Digital Driving Licence, which provides key digital skills that can be used both at work and in daily life. More than 10,000 people have taken part in digital training at Barclays, with Digital Eagles spread across branches in the UK.

The bank has also invested in technology from both a community and company standpoint; its Eagles Labs provide tech advice to budding entrepreneurs across 13 UK locations and have partnered with the BBC and the University of Cambridge. Barclays has also invested in its own award-winning mobile app, which is used by more than 3.8million people. In fact, half of Barclays’ customers use the mobile app as their main way of banking.

“The rate of change driven by digital technology is staggering and is only going to increase; it’s vital that, as individuals and businesses, we step up the pace,” Barclays’ UK CEO Ashok Vaswani told Changeboard last year. “We need to move from talking about digital inclusion to talking about digital empowerment.” 

Learning to upskill

The responsibility for creating a digitally empowered workforce and society lies with all of us, whether employers, educators or entrepreneurs. While banking is working retrospectively to empower its people, one company that has been upskilling its staff for 15 years is Teach First, a charity established to encourage graduates to enter teaching.

Just as Barclays is embracing the changes brought by digitisation, Teach First has set out to meet the evolving needs of schools by offering an innovative solution that benefits both its audience and potential employees.

In its 15-year history, Teach First has brought 10,000 teachers into schools, parachuting participants into classrooms for an initial two-year commitment, following fast-track training. However, the government-funded charity has faced criticism for failing to keep its teachers in the profession beyond the two-years, fostering an ‘us versus them’ sentiment between existing teachers and those entering via Teach First. 

For CEO Russell Hobby, this movement of graduates into other sectors can facilitate a crosspollination of skills, while meeting the needs of a generation for whom the ‘job for life’ is dead. Quite often, he says, a teacher will go into business and return to teaching with new skills that can impact positively on pupils. “We have a better educated population than we’ve ever had, but business still sees a skills gap,” he says. “We’re not educating young people enough about the options and the skills they’ll need. And when we do, such as talking to GCSE students about careers, it’s too late. “When it comes to digital, whatever technology we teach them will be different from what they use in the future anyway. So having key skills is important. We shouldn’t underplay the fundamentals of academic education, such as literacy, numeracy and communication – they’re not going out of fashion in the digital age.”

For Hobby, Teach First’s loyalties lie as much with the communities and schools they serve as with the teachers they employ. This means moving the best graduates into challenging teaching positions they may not have previously chosen, and accepting that their graduates may look to other industries after completing training. Rather than viewing this as negative, Teach First believes these new experiences – or upskilling – can foster new ideas and attitudes that can benefit education in the long-term.

Upskilling and reskilling is a core part of embracing change and exploiting the opportunities of digitisation. It follows that, for the UK workforce to maintain relevant skills, the pace of technological development must be matched by ongoing learning and development. What we teach children today may no longer be appropriate by the time they enter the workforce, so the burden of development cannot lie solely with schools but must continue with business.

Ultimately, the outcomes of digitisation are in our hands. With progress comes challenges but also opportunity; the most disruptive businesses often emerge out of technological change, for example, Google, now 19 years old, and the 14 year-old adolescent that is Facebook. By contrast, the internet – at the ripe old age of 28 – is no longer a teenager and it’s about time we took it in a more socially responsible direction. The single biggest opportunity underpinning the fourth industrial revolution is to start making technology work for all.