The momentum of digital technology in the workplace is only increasing.  Constant change presents new challenges as well as new opportunities for leaders and workers alike. Rising to these challenges and staying nimble in the face of profound transformation is possible, but it needs a new paradigm when considering employees of the future.

Multi-Disciplinary Teams

A workforce of individuals, each really good at one particular thing, is losing ground to networks of multi-talented groups. Multi-disciplinary teams are communicating and collaborating to leverage their combined talent and knowledge to achieve greater productivity.  Their purpose is also about enhancing their ability to adapt. Recruitment, retention, and workforce development for employees of the future, must all embrace and enhance this model to make your organization robust going forward.

The age of automation

Automation is here. Humans are facing the idea that there are large parts of the world of work where they may now be irrelevant.   Many of our jobs are one-dimensional specialist roles.  Being specialists, one-dimensional functioning employees primes us, rather than protects us, from automation. We are able to easily break the components of these roles down into discrete tasks.  As a result, they are prime candidates for automation.  In turn, these tasks can be outsourced, distributed, or offloaded to some machine for completion.

Thriving in the face of automation

The key to not just surviving, but thriving in the face of automation.  Automating repetitive tasks frees up employees of the future to be multi-disciplinary. Individuals or teams can work in a multi-disciplinary way.  People, not automation will achieve the industry-wide disruption needed.

We can’t always out-compete technology at discrete tasks, whether it be playing chess or taking dictation. But we can still keep ahead on a learning curve that enables us to tackle a greater diversity of tasks and projects simultaneously.  Especially when those tasks and projects involve communication and coordination with other individuals, teams, departments, and organizations.

The new generalist employee of the future

Expanding generalists skills and capabilities will support the creation of multi-disciplinary teams.  That means not just embracing change, but prioritizing learning, training, and development. The next-generation generalist is highly trained and broadly capable.

Take the now-ubiquitous example of cybersecurity. What once was the exclusive realm of computer nerds and basement-dwelling IT staff is now the very real and pressing concern of everyone. Hyper-talented cybersecurity staff are necessary. However, they cannot be isolated. Nor the only ones focused on the perils of digital gatekeeping.

Managing corporate security, privacy, and data integrity takes a combination of tools and behavioural solutions. Even the most robust set of technology solutions will not make up for careless individuals. Or worse yet, individuals who aren’t even conscious of the impact of their behaviour.

The efficiency gains of moving to cloud-based computing and data storage can be quickly and dramatically erased. If a single user fails to follow basic protocols for access control and online behaviour it can be devastating.  Everyone needs to be aware, engaged, and at least minimally competent on matters of security. If not, they become the weakest link in the chain that compromises everything.

As with cybersecurity, so it goes with a growing list of other skills. From basic communication to higher-level organizational and operational functions.

The new game is collaboration

What this all means for both workers and leaders is that viability depends heavily upon greater collaboration, networking skill sets, and integrating teams more closely than ever to create efficiency and quality gains.

Paradoxically, generalists are capable of both greater independence, and greater collaboration.

For example, to stop the brain drain of rural social workers in Nevada, educators made a concerted effort to train more general practitioners. This amounted to investing a higher level of training for these workers. The upshot was it yielded workers with a broader scope of practice, and a greater capacity to both provide services and continue professional development autonomously.

The example of social work–or even the medical field more broadly–is particularly relevant because generalists are carrying an increasing burden of responsibility to serve more patients. Doing so effectively means working in constant triage mode, and collaborating with other specialists as needed to refer patients out.

Non-healthcare professionals need a similar capacity for individual problem-solving combined with a diverse network to support ad hoc collaboration. Talent networks enable generalists to understand who is best suited to help tackle a project, as well as to collaborate on–and learn from–the solution.

Soft skills supplements

At the very least, “specialization needs a soft skills wrapper,” as writer and diginomica co-founder Jon Reed explains.

What he means is that when we talk about skills gaps, it isn’t just hard skills like programming or financial knowledge that businesses are looking for, but soft skills that generally amount to social abilities, especially communication and self-motivation. This opinion is widely shared, according to Pew Research data on whether technical or soft skills matter more.

Increasingly it is apparent that hyper-specialization comes at the expense of practical collaboration. People whose skills and competence is limited to their department or even a specific if high-level, task, will tend to reinforce sales within the greater organization. Schools that win acclaim for their focus on next-generation skills development churn out graduates that often lack the basic ability to integrate with existing teams. They are unable to work with other departments. They struggle to creatively problem-solve in a mixed team environment. There is no anticipation of the needs of others outside of their own area of focus.

Multi-dimensional skills training

There is a fundamental need for collaboration in virtually every industry.  Increasing automation and globalization of all sectors of the economy, support the notion that being adaptive and personable will stay in style longer than any single bit of even the highest tech knowledge. New hires and old hands alike need training and experiential learning opportunities. Buy-in from employers is essential.  It is the ultimate win-win.

Specify your needs, not your wants

Irrationally specific, optimistic “Help Wanted” advertisements end up helping neither your organization nor potentially qualified applicants. Distinguishing what you think you need is key. Often what you think you need is biased toward the short-term. It bears no relation to what will deliver the most overall value. You must consider the overall value the employee can bring, as it can help you understand where you mistake your needs for wants.

Your needs must be inclusive of long-term retention, retraining, and peer-to-peer development. Making the most out of every recruit means supplementing their skill sets. You must turn their speciality into one strength among a larger, generalist toolkit.

When it comes to employees of the future, it seems as though employers value specialisation, yet economies value flexibility and a broader capacity to retrain. For your organization, that might mean improving retention and recruitment starts with putting more emphasis on trainability. Hiring candidates that can demonstrate a greater curiosity, ability to learn (and help others learn), and a skill set that makes them less on the nose.

Where existing staff are concerned, that means pushing more up training opportunities, learning-based engagement strategies, and advancing a culture of curiosity, change-tolerance, and constant development. In either case, the goal is to build teams of collaborative, communicative, generalists.