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Help employees adapt their careers for the future of work


HR leaders are well aware of the implications of increasing automation for their workforce. But supporting employees to futureproof their careers is easier said than done.

The business press is full of stories about the ways technological advances are disrupting careers: how we work, where we work, and even whether we’ll work.

Recent Careers of Tomorrow research I conducted for The Career Innovation Company shows that HR leaders are well aware of the implications of increasing automation for their workforce. In particular, they understand that if their people are to remain productive and employable they need to become agile, continuous learners.

But supporting employees to futureproof their careers is easier said than done, as these two comments from the research illustrate…

‘How do you get the attention of a workforce about the future impact of AI on their jobs and careers when it’s not affecting them now?’

‘There are so many high-quality tools and support resources available to employees in our organisation it’s like we’ve built a Ferrari, but people need to get behind the wheel and drive it’

How do you get employees’ attention?

So how do you foster an environment in which developing the understanding and skills needed to futureproof your career is a relevant and useful activity?

Nick Shackleton-Jones, a thought leader on how people learn, describes this as creating ‘affective context’. He argues that it’s only when people are persuaded of the significance of something, will they ‘pull’ the learning resources they need to learn and grow. He advises people involved in organisational learning to focus more on creating a compelling context – the reasons why the target audience should care about the issue – than the informational content itself.

Three engaging approaches from our recent research

So what can HR and other business leaders do to build these conditions?

Our research uncovered three ways that organisations are addressing this challenge:

1. Storytelling

Effective storytelling engages the emotions as well as the minds of the audience. I heard accounts of the powerful impact senior leaders had brought about when they shared revealing personal stories of success and failure in anticipating and responding to change. These stories had a common central message; don’t let complacency de-rail your career.

Third person stories can also work, particularly where the learners are able to relate to the situation being described. For example, this anecdote from a Professor at Kellogg School of Management will likely resonate with mid and late-career employees…

‘I recently met a sales manager who refused to understand social-media platforms to find new clients, believing that those platforms were the domain of the marketing team. “He said, ‘I don’t need to understand all this social-marketing mumbo jumbo. Selling is a face-to-face activity. It’s a contact sport.’ I said, ‘Really? With all the lead generation possibilities that digital marketing provides, you don’t really need to understand and utilize it?’”

Where might this story telling take place? Some examples involved a formal context like a conference, course, or town hall meeting. But others were in a team setting, or in a one to one development conversation. 

2. Scenario Planning

One leader told me that he prompted his people to consider the future by saying…

‘Think about how your job has changed in the last 5 years. Now think about what it might look like in 5 years’ time if the pace of change is even faster’.

Similar questions can be used to structure a team-based scenario planning exercise; an engaging and creative activity where colleagues brainstorm the uncertainties affecting the work they do and the skills they’ll need. This becomes the springboard to create different, feasible realities for what might happen in their part of the organisation over the next 3-5 years. 

Conclusions about the likely impacts of these scenarios provide a compelling context for teams and individuals to plan the actions they need to take.

Team leaders can build on the momentum by:

  • Directing people toward available skill and career-building resources and experiences
  • Recommending specialist careers advice beyond their on-going support

3. Workshops

A well-designed workshop can provide the impetus for pull-style learning.

During our research I heard about one organisation that identified 5 technology developments that were going to significantly impact their business. They explored the nature of the work people would be doing, and the new skills they’d need.

For each development (Blockchain was one example) they offered a one-day introduction to raise people’s awareness. They reinforced the message that, in a fast-changing environment, the only way to survive and prosper is to stay ahead of the curve.

‘Now I get it’

Reflecting on these approaches, I identified three key themes:

  1. A compelling positioning of the topic. Within minutes you want individuals to be saying to themselves ‘This sounds really important, I’d better pay attention’.
  2. An engaging, collaborative process.  An activity where individuals feel encouraged to participate, where their contributions are valued, where they learn with and from each other, and where they can access expert external input as they need it.
  3. Easy to access follow-up activities and resources. These build upon individual insights, and the overall momentum achieved:
      • On-line career building resources
      • Individual career support from line leaders, HR business partners and/or career coaches
      • Opportunities to further explore trends and their impact on roles and skills, for example through project-working
      • Leadership role-modelling and reinforcement
      • On-going company communication about re and up-skilling.

A final thought…getting the balance right

To get attention on futureproofing  it’s essential that organisations provide sufficient challenge to disturb people’s sense of equilibrium. However, to hold their attention, and channel it in a positive direction, it’s important you provide the ongoing support they’ll need to make good choices.

Help your people develop the understanding and skills they need to futureproof their career with our Be Bold in your Career course.

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