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Automation and CSR are driving reskilling process for UK plc, says Cisco

UK business leaders are planning to make dramatic changes to their organisations between now and 2020, according to a new report from Cisco

Business leaders across the UK are planning to make major internal changes to their organisations within the next 18 months, taking account of the rise of automation technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, and the growing need to adopt socially responsible practices.

According to a newly published report commissioned by network supplier Cisco, both of these factors will herald a sea change in how organisations approach skills development.

Speaking to Computer Weekly ahead of the report’s release, Cisco UK and Ireland chief executive Scot Gardner acknowledged that the rise of robotics and automation was an “existential issue” for many businesses.

Some 71% of respondents to Cisco’s survey said they would have to make changes to their business before 2020 because of new technology, and 78% said AI and machine learning would have a role to play in guiding what they do next, while 80% felt sure that these technologies would factor into business-critical decisions in the future.

Gardner said that taking a different approach to equipping employees with the skills needed to ride this wave would pay off for those prepared to take the leap.

“It is an issue of continuous learning around employees, and making sure you are offering the right kind of framework around that,” he said.

“Increasingly, we find ourselves focused on looking for people with skills that aren’t necessarily technological ones, but if they are tenacious and open to change, then we’ll do the tech training.”

Gardner added: “I don’t buy the idea that there are 100 jobs, and if you automate 40, there are 60 left. I don’t think the economy works like that. Markets adapt to the conditions they have.”

When it came to corporate social responsibility (CSR), Cisco’s research uncovered a disconnect between what business leaders acknowledged was important, and what they planned to do. The majority, 69%, said it was important, but only 15% saw it as a priority, even though customers generally seem more inclined to do business with companies that act responsibly.

Also, 84% of those interviewed for the report said they did not consider ethical implications to be a substantial barrier to business transformation.

“It is ultimately related to profit and maybe that’s where the discrepancy is,” said Gardner. “In the long term, social purpose matters – the general political narrative is really moving towards that being more important to businesses. But in the short term, making the quarterly numbers and generating profit means it is sometimes harder to prioritise it.

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“But I do observe from customers that they are increasingly aware of the fact that they need to take longer-term actions. Being a socially responsible business is better for you in the long term.”

Cisco is trying to influence its customers to move in this direction by being vocal about CSR and getting them to see that business is not detached from its host society, said Gardner.

This can be through charity work, he said. This year, Cisco’s UK operation has been raising money for, and contributing services to, the Trussell Trust, which runs a nationwide network of food banks. Cisco has also been running internal programmes encouraging its workforce to eat better, take more exercise, or to address mental health issues in the workplace.

As well as charity work and morale-boosting efforts, skills development should also be seen as an aspect of social responsibility, said Gardner. Cisco itself is also a major contributor to technology skills development in the UK, and a little over a year ago, it launched a series of skills initiatives with the intention of providing digital skills training – not just networking – to 250,000 people by 2020.

“That’s not just dabbling in the background,” he said. “It has a long-term business purpose, not only because people now understand the technology and want to consume what we produce, but also because it brings a social value since the people going through those programmes have more opportunities afterwards.

“Tech is both a driver and enabler of change. It’s a double-edged sword. There is a strong focus on automation, but you have to focus on the social side of skills and enabling your workforce if you’re going to execute. That’s the underlying message to take out of this research.”

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