By Jack Ngare, Managing director, African Development Centre.
More than ever before, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the place of technology and elevated the need for employees to have digital skills to thrive in this new world. Virtual meetings on Microsoft Teams or Skype are now more common than face to face meetings. Schools and universities have moved to a 100% virtual instruction mode and even social apps are now for holding virtual parties and concerts. According to estimates by leading global research and advisory firm Gartner, response to the pandemic has fast-forwarded digital adoption by five years. One result of this “digitalization at scale and velocity”, explains Gartner, is massive skill shifts. While the shift in skill needs was already a challenge, Gartner executives’ polls have shown that more than 58% of workforces have noted skill transformations since the onset of the pandemic.
But even with these changes, the nature of work has been changing with every advance in technology. Starting with the invention of the steam engine and the rise of industrial manufacturing, successive waves of technological innovation have provided new capabilities, tools, and power to make work more efficient and productive. These have always been times of great disruption as old ways of operating became obsolete and new models of work emerged.
By some other estimates, change today is happening 10 times faster and at 300 times the scale of the First Industrial Revolution. The change is so momentous that it is referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And the clear consensus is that the pace of change is only going to quicken. This, coupled with the skills shift brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, creates an overwhelming imperative for businesses to respond and respond rapidly.
Here in Africa, in just under three decades, the continent has witnessed incredible growth in the ICT space with more internet connectivity, more digital capability, and more innovation. In a recent briefing, Satya Nadella, CEO Microsoft noted that “we’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months. Africans have expanded the applications of technology, changing the way communities bank, farm and even access healthcare.
As a way of building Africa’s talent pipeline for the digital age, stakeholders in the technology space like Microsoft have partnered with local universities to create a modern intelligent edge and cloud curriculum, totally unique to Africa. We have for instance availed an opportunity, through our Africa Development Centre (ADC), for graduate to build a relevant and meaningful career in data science, AI, mixed reality, application development and many more. Our desire is to recruit exceptional talent across the continent that will build innovative solutions for global impact. This also creates opportunities for engineers to do meaningful work from their home countries.
This year, we are scaling this effort with the launch of the Game of Learners programme in the form of a purely virtual hackathon aimed to spur innovation among university students across Kenya. The exclusively virtual initiative is also student-driven with the overall objective being to empower the students to develop impactful solutions that can help address some of Africa’s and the world challenges. As we adopt to the new norm, ADC is working to ensure that the practical skilling needs identified, can still be accessed by our students through virtual tools.
Recently, we announced a new global skills initiative aimed at bringing more digital skills to 25 million people worldwide by the end of the year. The announcement comes in response to the global economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Expanded access to digital skills is an important step in accelerating economic recovery, especially for the people hardest hit by job losses. This initiative offers free access to learning paths and content to help people develop the skills these positions require
But what is the reasoning behind all this? As per a white paper on New Culture of Work titled Empowering people and organizations to achieve more commissioned by Microsoft in 2018, in the digital economy, people’s most important contribution to the creation of corporate value will increasingly be their ability to come up with new ideas. “Every person in every role will be expected to employ creative and innovative thinking, whether they are giving a sales presentation, doing financial analysis, or drafting plans for deploying new technology. And instead of mostly relying on text to convey ideas and information, people will use visuals, voice, and video into most communications and almost every presentation,” the white paper reads in part.
Further, in his best-selling book A Whole New Brain published in 2005, Daniel Pink predicted that in coming decades, there would be a growing emphasis on “right-brain” qualities, such as inventiveness, creativity, strategy, empathy, play, and meaning. Recent LinkedIn research confirms much of Pink’s prediction, noting that skills such as empathy, curiosity, adaptability, and open-mindedness are consistently among the most sought after.
This shift is also reflected in generational research that finds Millennials look for creative freedom when considering potential job opportunities. Companies should, therefore, look to digital technology to help humans do more innovative work. Today, for example, knowledge workers spend more than 20 per cent of their time struggling to find information. Technology will give people more thinking time simply by making search easier. As technology handles routine and time-intensive tasks, people can spend more brainpower on innovative inquiry, thereby driving more new products and services contributing to the overall bottom line.