Co-authored with Sean Hinton, Founder and CEO at SkyHive Technologies.

Companies are currently facing unprecedented challenges, from climate change to diversity to digital transformation, all while trying to leave their people Net Better Off. Unlocking people’s full potential and preparing them for the future of work, however, is typically approached in too linear a fashion. Organizations need to build a smarter framework for talent development and mobility. If they focus on this now, using the right tools, they’ll be able to adapt and evolve as new ways of working take hold.

Businesses are certainly capable. After all, in early 2020, organizations the world over were able to maintain business continuity by completing 18 months’ worth of digital transformation in a single weekend. But effective people development will rely on proactive efforts. If we wait for the future of work to arrive, it will be too late.

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To be ready, an entirely new way of thinking about technology, people and how the two interact is required. 

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is key to bringing everything together in a way that prepares people and organizations alike for a new world of work that’s already taking shape.

Consider a worker who is asked to list his or her skills. On average, they’ll identify approximately 11 specific skills. Using AI, however, that number will be closer to 34. If people overlook two-thirds of their own skills, you can bet that a recruiter or department manager will overlook them, too.

A lack of awareness about skills is concerning given that different types of roles are declining and emerging all the time, and the future of work is arriving faster than even the largest companies can manage. Connecting people to—and training them for—new roles is too great a task to be left to traditional approaches.

AI, however, presents a unique opportunity to assess people on an individual level, taking into account their interests as well as their abilities. Instead of simply connecting people to new roles that they can perform, AI also helps us connect people to roles they actually want to perform.

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Unlocking people’s potential for the greater good

In early 2021, Accenture conducted a pilot program in partnership with the World Economic Forum (WEF), Walmart and Unilever. SkyHive has pioneered a methodology called Quantum Labor Analysis which uses AI to analyze a workforce at the skills level. Using this innovative AI-based skill-mapping platform, we looked at several declining and emerging roles that, collectively, represent the present and future talent challenges for major retail and consumer goods entities.

Using SkyHive, we broke down several roles into sets of skills that, as mentioned above, people wouldn’t be able to identify on their own. We were then able to use the AI to develop specific learning pathways from declining roles to emerging jobs, both internally and externally. In some cases, we found that people were already well prepared for new careers. They might only require a few months of training.

While some of these pathways were predictable, others were completely unexpected—yet made perfect sense when we analyzed the data.

But training our brains to think of a job as a collection of transferrable skills, we realized, is just the start. We need the AI to show us the possibilities and opportunities and create the roadmaps from declining roles to emerging ones in a scalable way.

The path ahead

Unilever and Walmart were natural partners on this pilot program for two reasons. First, as co-chairs of WEF’s Consumer and Retail Industries task force, they are uniquely positioned to show their respective sectors what’s possible.

Second, both companies were already committed to skilling employees and reshaping their strategies with the future of work just on the horizon. Unilever has publicly committed to upskilling its entire workforce by 2025, and Walmart has been engaged in upskilling initiatives since 2014.

Going forward, they’ll keep the pilot project’s five key learnings in mind:

  1. Skilling is smart business: Matching workers’ purpose, passions and skills with roles in a variety of sectors, and maintaining their livelihoods—whether internally or externally alike—will help sustain long-term growth.

  2. The HR function must enable individual talent mobility: AI is a powerful tool for driving and enabling mobility, but the data must be gathered on the individual level. Understanding people’s strengths, interests and other personal criteria will result in better career decisions that benefit people and companies alike.

  3. Responsible AI is essential for eliminating bias: There is widespread evidence that women and people of color underrepresent their skills. Responsible AI will help create more equitable processes and allow for the creation of more job pathways for underserved groups.

  4. Cultural change is required: Management needs to trust the AI skill analyses, and recognize the strong correlation between expanding career opportunities for people and creating growth opportunities for the business.

  5. Cross-industry collaboration is an accelerator: Only so much can be accomplished if companies go at it alone. They must collaborate to prepare people in their communities for the future of work—which is why Unilever and Walmart examined learning pathways between their organizations as part of the pilot, and will likely continue to do so in the future.

Given how many millions of jobs will be lost to—and created by—automation and other technologies between now and 2025, putting AI at the heart of talent mobility will be essential. And the more companies that buy into this new approach, the more effective and efficient the impact will be as it enables the kind of collaboration and mobility required.

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People are still the most important part of the equation

Reskilling at scale requires the blending of art and science. AI can only do so much heavy lifting. People are still the key, indispensable element in the future of work.

AI can’t work effectively without people managing the data going in or interpreting and acting on the results that come out. AI provides the science required to better understand workers’ skillsets; that must be married with the people-centric art of showing that the pathways between roles are viable, that they’re worthy of managers’ support and that they’re available for employees to pursue. The role of HR is evolving, as they must now act as change agents to help business leaders think differently about their people and talent mobility.

AI eliminates biases and shows us the way toward unlocked doors. But we still need old-fashioned brain power to determine which ones people actually want to open and walk through. Let’s use AI, responsibly, to prepare people for a future when they’ll not only have job security; they might even have individual agency to choose the job they want.

See more Workforce insights.

Nicholas Whittall

Senior Managing Director – Accenture Strategy, Talent & Organization, Talent Strategy & Development Global Lead

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