Will automation and a managerial skills gap leave tomorrow’s leaders unable to nurture talent?

Graham Moore -business development director for Ricoh Europe

Graham Moore -Director Business Development, Ricoh Europe

From smart TVs to connected thermostats, automation is increasingly prevalent in the home. People want more and more aspects of their lives to ‘just happen.’ However, the real impact of automation on the workplace is yet to be fully explored. Increased productivity and reduced costs are touted as the key benefits for businesses, including print service providers. But naturally, such a sizeable move demands a shift in the skills needed for an organisation to function.

In recent years, the skills shortage has been seen predominantly in IT and cyber security. A recent study by ISACA[i] shows that 86 per cent of businesses and IT professionals believe there is a substantial shortage of cyber security experts. The implication of this shortage has been that businesses now face an increased risk of attacks, and are far less prepared to mitigate or prevent one – a costly and dangerous position to be in. Only 38% of respondents to this study – comprised of more than 3,400 ISACA members in 129 countries – say they are prepared to experience a cyber attack. For printing companies, many of whom are caretakers for sensitive customer data, the skills shortage is likely even higher, since many have small or non-existent IT staff.

The good news is that as the diverse, tech-savvy ‘Generation Z’, born in the mid-1990s onwards, begins to enter the workplace in the next few years, the IT skills and knowledge that are second nature to them will help to combat this. But print service providers, like other businesses, cannot wait for that transition; they must begin to address the IT skills gap now.

A very different futureAnd with the entry of Gen Z-ers into the workplace, an even more complex skills gap will emerge which employers will need to battle. This will include the need for softer managerial skills, including creative problem-solving and constructive interaction with others, while being ‘tech-literate’ will be a standard part of the working world – table stakes, as it were. There are plenty of resources for learning tech skills, but the evolving nature of managerial skills will be more difficult to address. Creating strong and effective managers has always been a challenge, with many arguing that managing effectively is something that can’t be taught. And again, for printing companies, many of whom are smaller family-owned businesses, managerial skills have been learned on the fly and may not be as effective in the Brave New World of Generation Z as they would like.

Creating the creative workforce

Creativity and social intelligence will become crucial differentiators for many businesses as we move into the future. It’s inevitable that automation, technology and machines will assume more of what have traditionally been manual roles – leaving highly creative jobs to thrive. In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Future of Work study, sponsored by Ricoh, Ian Stewart, Chief Economist at professional services firm Deloitte, said: “Jobs that seem most likely to survive and thrive are those that require flexibility, creativity and social intelligence.”

Many believe that automation will allow employees and operations to strengthen their creative capabilities by freeing up time consumed by manual, often repetitive, tasks in order to undertake more complex and challenging tasks. In the research, seven out of 10 respondents agreed with this statement: “Businesses have a responsibility to automate labour as much as possible to allow staff to focus on more valuable tasks.” For print service providers the provision of greater automation reduces human touchpoints. This in turn addresses the need to find a profitable way of producing shorter run jobs. In fact, barely one in 10 respondents thought that companies should resist automation. Yet many printing companies have, indeed, not yet automated to the fullest extent made possible by budgets and technology. The opportunities are here: JDF, web to print and MIS all offer tremendous scope for efficiencies through automation. Similarly, preflighting, archiving and invoicing are processes that can be streamlined, automated and accelerated. In fact, with the right workflow, manual intervention may be required only in the event of an error or defect..

Almost 90 per cent of respondents to the EIU Future of Work study believed that the strength of an employee’s human capabilities, such as creativity and communication, were important to the success of a business – and 39 per cent of these believed it was the single most important factor. It’s evident that all print service providers need to harness and adapt their workforce with creativity in mind.  And that means eliminating repetitive, redundant manual processes (or touches) to the fullest extent possible, stripping out any activities that do not add value. While offline and nearline finishing, for example, can sometimes be replaced by more productive inline finishing systems, the ability to programme these devices (as an integral part of the workflow) to finish each job according to its unique needs can reduce manual intervention considerably. Furthermore, entirely independent digital and offset production lines are not as efficient or flexible as when they are integrated into one, shared workflow. Tracking and shipping are also mainly manual processes yet barcoding technology and automated notifications can enhance productivity and, also job integrity, greatly.

Evolving role of management

A key role for future management will be nurturing talent. Over a third of survey respondents said that managers will need to become more effective at nurturing talent in order to assure their companies’ success. And with this comes the need to develop a shared sense of culture and purpose in the workplace.

Business management leaders, from whatever sector, will need to not only think of company strategy, but also consider the importance of developing a creative atmosphere in order to get the most out of staff. In a start-up environment, it is far easier to encourage a fresh, innovative culture, but more established businesses, which includes most printing businesses, will generally be slower to adapt to this change in management style. As a result, these companies may struggle to retain strong talent, and become less competitive compared to rival businesses. And ask any printing executive: It can already be difficult to attract and retain the best talent in competition with “sexier” digitally-oriented jobs.

Preventing the future skills gap

Developments in technology have changed working patterns and employees’ expectations of a work/life balance. This has been seen with the emerging trend of everywhere ergonomics – the interaction between people and design technology – with a more dynamic and mobile workforce appearing. But how will these changes impact the priorities of printing businesses?

In the research, the main priorities executives identified were to increase employee productivity and cost control. However, when asked what those priorities should be in three years’ time, employee well-being and advancing employee skills and capabilities topped the list.

The key question is this: do we have a generation of leaders in the printing industry who are capable of nurturing future talent? Can our current leaders inspire and train the wave of Generation “Z-ers” entering the workforce, as well as the older existing employees? It is this delicate balance which could be the crux of future business success for our industry and others. The time to prepare is now.

[i] The 2015 Global Cybersecurity Status Report by ISACA