View: Covid-hit business, a licence to skill

By Subram Natarajan

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, companies have, overnight, been forced to perform a large-scale transition of their workforce from the office to remote/home locations. This, while employees in the ‘essential industries’ are in short supply and the workforce can’t ramp up fast enough.

These changes are happening with no room for business disruption, while addressing employee questions and security paramount during this time of uncertainty. The concept of microlearning, online coaching, and virtual on-the-job support has become more relevant with appropriate digital content for technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), cloud and automation to accelerate skills in certain sectors.

Enterprises are starting to review their digital presence and security posture more closely. Skills needed to ramp up on digital products and services, infrastructure services and cybersecurity are all geared towards sustaining and building communication, collaboration capabilities and culture in a virtual operating model.

Unlike a typical IT project, digital skills tend to touch several aspects of business and IT functions. The key here is to leverage exponential technologies like AI and Internet of Things (IoT) to quickly come up with solutions. For example, using a virtual assistant (AI technology) real-time to keep employees updated about critical business policy updates, health and safety policies, travel management and authorisation, and extending this to AI-driven alerts and insights via mobile, website and HR portals.

Similarly, on the infrastructure services side, the notion of business continuity practices, infrastructure management and monitoring will require more focused skills on designing solutions. This could be as simple as assessing the right response, such as backup and automated recovery solutions. Cloud is an important element in this mix.

Remote management of systems and automation of workflow will become an essential skill in the infrastructure services space. It is in situations like these when teams no longer work within the confines of the enterprise’s premises and when security control is from a single point that cybersecurity skills to help protect mobile devices and data, safeguard users and access, and secure expanding environments become high priority.

For the large part, organisations possess the necessary domain skills within themselves. A more structured set of skills that will need to complement the in-house domain skills would be (1) business modelling and using techniques such as the component business model (CBM) framework; (2) to design thinking based behavioural modelling and continuous development; and (3) garage methodologies that will help co-create, co-execute and cooperate with the right stakeholders.

IT skill-sets need to be fairly multidisciplinary and continuously evolving. From modernising infrastructure, working on data architecture, to creating a development environment that will help with digitising application landscape, require expertise in various areas. Open source-based development is the mantra to accelerate innovation. Community-based development brings in a ‘variety’ flavour, but also adds to the enormity of skills to be acquired.

While the same community provides enough enablement material and mechanisms, it still is a daunting task for anyone who specialises in a technology area — e.g., cloud app development, UI/UX (user interface/user experience) design, etc. On the positive side, the learning curve is short, so the learning modules will usually help to ramp up.

A good digital transformation project will always have a data platform element to it. Here, the challenge is that of technology adjacency. For example, if you are a data platform engineer, it’s just not enough to have an understanding of tools to establish a strong data pipeline, enable transformation, cataloguing and preparation of data for further advanced analytics. The whole development needs to occur in a cloud context, securely, and be open enough for upstream toolset consumption.

As traditional business models give way to platform models, workforce expectations are also shifting. While learning and skilling continue to be an individual choice, adopting best practices enhances the learning culture in an organisation. Because it defines survival, the step before one thrives.

The writer is chief technology officer, IBM India/South Asia