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Imperial Business Breakfast - Digital Transformation: Upskilling the Workforce

Imperial Business Breakfast Digital Transformation

Colleague or competitor? Experts debate what digital transformation means for workers

Senior HR and learning and development professionals from across industries gathered at Imperial College London for the first Imperial Business Breakfast of 2019 – Digital Transformation: Upskilling the Workforce.

In a wide-ranging roundtable discussion, attendees considered whether the media has overstated the role of robotics and automation technologies in the substitution of the human labour force.

Three experts in digital transformation and the future of work kicked-off the conversation: Hernán González Merlani, Global Head of Talent Management at HSBC Private Banking & Global Functions; Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA); and Dr Mark Kennedy, Associate Professor of Strategy and Organisation at Imperial College Business School and Director of Imperial Business Analytics, a research lab in Imperial College London’s Data Science Institute.

We need to stop seeing machines as the enemy

Encouraging collaboration between human workers and technology was key for HSBC’s Hernán González Merlani. Referencing recent media focus on the ‘battle’ between humans and new technologies, he argued that business should instead think about technology and human workers as a team, contributing to a common goal and each suited to different tasks. Business and society should consider how to maximise both technological and human potential.

Will our leaders adapt?

The RSA’s Matthew Taylor argued that digital transformation must go hand in hand with social, political and economic transformation. For Mr Taylor, the key question was whether political leaders will adapt their policies to enable workers to succeed in an age of digital disruption. Policy changes could include new forms of citizen engagement in the democratic process, new corporate governance frameworks to address ethical dilemmas arising from new technology, and reforms to the education system to increase focus on skills such as creativity and resilience.

Are we serious about making work better?

Imperial’s Dr Mark Kennedy described how technology could augment the human experience of work. Drawing on his work with the College’s Data Science Institute, he argued that technological change could result in the creation of new, potentially more fulfilling, tasks for human workers as well as the substitution of existing tasks through automation.

The outlook for human workers was therefore potentially positive if businesses and policy-makers were ambitious and regarded digital transformation as an opportunity to create better workplaces and institutions, as well as to deliver operational efficiencies. However, Mr Taylor urged politicians and business leaders to avoid ‘solutionism’ – that is, regarding technology as offering a simple solution to complex problems.

The concluding roundtable discussion examined how business leaders and policy-makers could reverse the pessimism about digital transformation currently felt by many in society. Attendees agreed that the education system should be reformed to place greater emphasis on skills such as creativity and critical thinking; that collaboration in the workplace should be encouraged; and finally that technology should be used to empower people, for example, by giving people clearer ownership of their data.

Imperial Business Breakfasts are taking place throughout 2019. To register your interest in attending a future Business Breakfast, please visit the Executive Education Events webpage.

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