The talent challenge: Harnessing the power of human skills in the machine age

20th CEO Survey

In the age of the machine, people matter more than ever

The right mix of people and machines in the workplace - and the implications not only for business but for wider society - is the critical talent question of our age. This is a delicate balancing act for CEOs in every sector and region. Automation and the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) brings the promise of increased efficiency, productivity and profitability within reach, if CEOs can work out how to best access their potential.

The logical conclusion to the relentless march of automation is that it will transform the role of people at work. Different skills will be needed, some roles will disappear and others will evolve. Some organisations will need fewer people but others will need more - we will see a rebalancing of human capital as organisations adjust. This has wide-ranging consequences for HR - the role of the function may even need a fundamental rethink.

The world of work is changing - are you ready? 

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We interviewed CEOs to capture their views on the workforce of the future and the role of automation | Duration: 2.13

Playing catch-up with human capital

Organisations will always need people and this CEO Survey reinforces that view; 52% of CEOs say they plan to increase headcount in the next 12 months, up from 48% in 2016 and only 16% plan to cut their company’s headcount over the coming year.

Although CEOs are generally feeling upbeat about the future, this willingness to recruit more workers is a sign that CEOs are rebalancing their workforce with a focus on strengthening their innovation, digital and technology capabilities in order to capitalise on these new opportunities in order to support skills and investment. 

The search for skills, human capabilities and competing for the best talent

With 77% of CEOs saying they see the availability of key skills as the biggest business threat, ‘soft’ skills are in demand with CEOs seeing the value in marrying technology with exclusively human capabilities. The skills they believe are the most important are the uniquely human collaborative capabilities that can't be replaced by machines. As a result, some parts of the recruitment market are about to become very competitive indeed.

Talent strategy is complex, risky and difficult to get right. For years CEOs have identified it as a main target for strategic change and now 78% say they’ve changed their people strategy to reflect the skills and employment structures they need for the future. They’re taking steps to improve their access to talent and attract the people they need, whoever and wherever they may be. 

Challenging times for HR

With 60% of CEOs saying they are rethinking their HR function, it appears HR have a long way to go in persuading business leaders that it’s up for the challenge.

The challenge isn’t necessarily about finding new and innovative ways of accessing the talent market; it’s about using the full range of HR expertise and tools to identify skills gaps, anticipate needs, spot potential and build the workforce for the future.

CEOs know this, and have taken pains in recent years to talk about the importance of culture and diversity. But this requires action, not just discussion; and HR can lead the way.

Where next? Five essentials for talent strategy

1.    Plan for multiple futures - in detail. Scenario planning is a powerful tool to prepare organisations for a machine-age future where no outcome can be safely dismissed as unlikely. 

2.    Prepare for the recruitment challenge. Even in a world of automation, people and skills are still essential and competition for good talent is intense. Is your recruitment strategy up to the challenge?

3.    Work on soft skills. CEOs are looking for specific skills that are difficult to find and keep - nurturing them will become a priority.

4.    Get the people experience right. The end-to-end people experience is derived from a complex interaction of elements and it’s essential that each is monitored and understood.

5.    Work on trust - with purpose. Knowledge is power when it comes to strengthening trust. 

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