A combination of honesty, directness and business forecasting based on an outlook of no more than four years should drive the difficult conversations that bosses must have with staff about the future of work, according to Robert M Falzon – vice chairman of US personal finance firm Prudential Financial.
In an interview with Quartz at Work,  Falzon explains that his firm has introduced artificial intelligence (AI) into its underwriting process, to trim down the onboarding of new customers into something more akin to an Amazon-style purchasing journey.
As such, the composition of the company’s customer-facing workforce has shifted away from human underwriters and medical experts, and towards data scientists and actuaries who can feed the AI with the required numbers.
Asked what that means for how he describes to staff what the firm is going to look like in the near term, Falzon says: “Well, you don’t have to boil the ocean on this. The reality is, at best we can look three or four years forward. So you’re not trying to forecast out a decade from now what skills they’re going to need. I can take this in three- and four-year bites. That’s a more manageable undertaking.”
In terms of how that forecasting will impact upon employees, he notes, it’s a matter of “sitting down with individuals … group by group, function by function, business by business” and explaining frankly how the forecasts will affect those people or groups. He says: “We already have an idea of where we’d like to be. Now [we can ask ourselves] what does that look like and where are the gaps that get created as a result of that vision?
“And then you can begin to have conversations with people [and tell them], ‘You need to be thinking about this kind of skill development, because in the next three years, if you’re not, you could find yourself actually without a job, because what you’re doing today, we’re gonna need a lot less of it.’ That’s the kind of conversation – honest conversation – to be having with individuals.”
A failure to do so, Falzon stresses, would force the firm into “reactionary” responses to change – but an anticipatory mindset works best for both company and staff.
To what extent should other leaders follow his approach?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “One really impressive story I’ve heard in this vein was from a manager who had just joined a troubled bank. There had been massive redundancies at this organisation, and everyone was uncertain about the future. And he said, ‘Right – the first thing that everybody’s going to do is update their CVs – so if we don’t turn things around, and the situation gets worse rather than better, we’re all in a position to look around for other opportunities.’ That sort of honesty is what Falzon is advocating here.”
She notes: “Of course, we don’t know which jobs are going to go soonest. We can predict. We can take reasonably educated guesses. And, as I explained in one of my recent Forbes columns, we can take a good look at the big disruptors in our industries. We know that key processes and business models will change radically. It’s a matter of being ready for that change: ready to move on, and to start thinking about reskilling. To ensure that, as a business proposition, you are marketable. Not to bury your head in the sand, hope it won’t happen to you – and then, when it does happen, find that not only are you not ready, but you have the shock and reality check to deal with because you finally have to face up to it.”
Cooper adds: “Anyone in any industry that is remotely susceptible to the replacement of human labour with AI should be thinking, what’s next for me? That’s not being brutal or unkind, but realistic. If the function is replaced by machines, then it’s only inevitable that its managers will be, too. But for the foreseeable future at least, there will be a demand for knowledge workers who are able to fill roles that AI is not yet up to performing.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on future readiness
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