Demystifying “Future Skills”

Reading Time: 4 minutes

As BT’s Strategic Workforce Manager, Gergo Safar leads BT’s efforts to define the competencies required to deliver BT’s long-term business ambition. He is currently building strategic workforce plans, models and initiatives to prepare for the future of work, focussing on future skills demand and supply.

BT is one of the world’s leading communications services companies. BT serves customers’ needs in the UK and 180 countries worldwide around a core offering of fixed-line services, broadband, mobile and TV products and services as well as networked IT services.

Gergo sat with Eton Bridge Partners’ HR practice to discuss future skills and strategic workforce planning. In the first of two installments Gergo explains and demystifies the future skills concept:

What drove you to move into HR?

GS: I studied Economics; majored in Corporate Finance and International Business Management and years later, in HR as well. You could argue that I ended up quite far from the originally planned Finance career. I’m a firm believer that functional differentiation will fade away in most organisations. We will and should be known for the skills we bring to the table, not for the name of the function and department we organisationally belong to. I don’t want to be known as the ‘guy from HR’, but as the guy who hacked the long-term skills demands for his organisation.

So, did you actively seek a move into Future Skills and then strategic workforce planning roles?

GS: When my director at BT approached me with the idea of the Future Skills role, I genuinely felt the excitement flooding through my veins. It was very much in ideation phase at that point, but I knew I wanted to be part of it.

In my mind, strategic workforce planning is a natural continuation of the role. Long-term workforce planning quantifies an organisation’s future skills demands and identifies opportunities to get there. I’m grateful that I was given the opportunity to see how far I can take it.

What are Future Skills and why are they important?

GS: If I can use slightly casual language: Future Skills is the new corporate sexy. They sound exciting and mysterious.

Future Skills represent the capabilities that will be critical for an organisation in the long-term. A good share of the future-critical capabilities exists today. They are already relevant for the vast majority of us but may be under-indexed for a variety of reasons.

Many think of future skills as the highly technical, definitely complicated and scary ones – like coding a language that only a very few people are able to do. They are surprised to learn that a big share of the future-critical capabilities are behavioural skills. Wonder why? Their future importance is linked to the economics of standardisation. Some of the behaviours are difficult to standardise or automate, they remain truly human skills.

The success of an organisation will depend on their employees and how their human skills will augment the machines that will be more widely used at that point. Before we get too apocalyptic: don’t envision a robot-led world. In an ideal world, everybody will do what they are good at: machines will practice machine skills, while humans will practice truly human skills that quite often will come from the behavioural skills arena. It won’t be easy to get there, however, I’m positive there will be a place for every human and machine to play to their strengths.

Is there a universal set of Future Skills?

GS: Partly yes, there will be a set of future critical capabilities that will be applicable to the vast majority of organisations, even if with different levels of emphasis. We will all compete for very similar skillsets. The talent marketplace will break down industry barriers, there will be critical skills important to a car factory, a charity, or a wind farm, and there will be skills specific to your organisation or line of business.

You mentioned behavioural skills; how would you define them?

GS: Behaviours are quite often labelled as soft skills. I don’t like that phrase as we have an unconscious association with the word ‘soft’ as being not so important or easy, while the reality is quite the contrary. For example, I am not going to bring up the endlessly repeated usual suspects for future-critical behaviours like curiosity, resilience or learning agility, even though we can already feel how big a difference they can make and will continue to do so.

I would pick a less frequently mentioned example: ‘unlearning agility’. The ability to identify and discontinue practices that used to work very well, but don’t do the trick anymore. You can rightly ask: can this be developed? Let’s face it, it is against our human DNA; most of our day is spent on autopilot starting with how you brush your teeth in the morning, to the way you approach a business problem or conduct a presentation. We are creatures of habit. The ability to proactively identify and change previously well-functioning practices is a critical skill today and will remain so in the future. It’s definitely not impossible to develop these skills, the same way as one can give up smoking, but it will take a while to muscle up the “unlearning”.

What is your advice to a company just beginning to define what their Future Skills needs are?

GS: I would highlight three key areas:

1. Have a vision of the sort of capabilities you will need and want to have in your organisation. However, be ready to change them and steer the ship on very different waters, literally overnight if needed. Covid-19 has taught organisations this lesson the hard way.

2. Don’t look for the answers only within your organisation, explore as much externally as you do internally. Go and look at what’s out there, even in organisations that seem to be very different to yours. Don’t just ask, share your thoughts as well. Sharing is the new power and as long as it is a two-way street, you will learn so much.

3. Last, but not least: having a Future Skills list is not the end-product. It is a means to an end where the value comes from the journey. No one will remember you if you scored 4 or 9 out of the 10 most important skills that will shape your organisation in 5-10-years’ time. The difference will be found in what you are going to do about your Future Skills needs. How do you quantify the size of the demand for those particular skills; how do you plan to get them; and how do you drive engagement around them? This will form the basis for your strategic workforce initiatives that we will discuss next time.