New skills essential for thriving amid digital disruption

By Ken Tysiac

At home and at work, technology is changing the way people operate.

Away from the office, we’re constantly checking our smartphones for texts, emails, social media updates, and news. At work, tech-enabled companies such as Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb are changing industries while artificial intelligence and robotic process automation are gaining traction in business processes.

“We all are in the middle of this change,” said Tracey Wilen, DBA, an expert on workplace skills development who spoke about the implications of digital disruption during a session Monday at the AICPA spring governing Council meeting.

Wilen discussed the trends technology is bringing to the marketplace, the skills professionals need to succeed, and the strategies leaders can pursue to thrive in this period of technological evolution.

She said medical breakthroughs are going to lead people to live much longer lives, predicting that people often will work into their 80s to be sure they will be comfortable in retirement as they live to ages over 100. This will lead to an increasing number of generations in the workforce, with each of them needing to be managed differently to make the workplace a cohesive and successful place.

A second trend is the emergence of what Wilen calls the “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world. Natural disasters and cyberattacks often threaten to disrupt operations, and many leaders live with the constant knowledge that a competitor or startup may develop technology that will upend the way they do business.

According to Wilen, these trends will place a premium on certain skills, including:

  • Multimedia literacy. As the workforce is increasingly populated with people who would rather watch a video than read a book, it will become more important to deliver information and provide training without relying strictly on text.
  • Data analysis. Technology is simultaneously making more data available to companies and providing tools for analyzing data. Those who do the best job operationalizing the insights derived from these data will have an advantage in a VUCA world.
  • Novel and adaptive thinking. You can gain a tremendous advantage by using a new technology to find a better way to solve a problem. To illustrate this concept, Wilen cited the example of Cornell University biomedical engineer Lawrence Bonassar’s use of 3D printers with living cells to create more effective bioengineered ears for patients who need them.

Meanwhile, Wilen said leaders need to lead differently in the current environment. She said leaders need to develop vision, specialized skills, and generalized knowledge of the marketplace to help their organizations thrive.

“We really just used to need to know our role or our company or our industry,” she said. “But now it’s broader. You have to understand what’s going on in the marketplace. Who are the new competitors? What are the new technologies that are emerging that we have to be aware of in case it comes into our space? So that’s much broader than in the past.”

Meanwhile, leaders need to create career paths and succession plans for employees from the minute they are hired, Wilen said. She said younger professionals arrive in the workplace with the idea that they are going to advance to leadership rapidly. She suggested that onboarding plans need to evolve so that they create an environment for professionals that meets their aspirations from the day they walk in the door.

As leaders are deluged with responsibilities, learning how to delegate is important to help them succeed in their own roles and provide up-and-coming professionals with an opportunity to mature, Wilen said. With people from many generations and cultures working together, Wilen said “snowflake management” is another leadership skill that can help organizations succeed. This approach helps leaders discover the variety of skills their people possess and use them to the maximum benefit of the team.

“We’re all different,” she said. “And we have to approach and learn about each team member in our organization and figure out what they can contribute, what is their unique contribution to the work we’re doing, and how do we lead those differences. So that’s a big change as well. We’re not all vanilla.”

What’s shared, though, is the prospect of change that will cut across industries, organizations, and all demographics. Wilen said the automotive industry is an example, as vehicles increasingly resemble software in a box rather than simply a box on wheels.

The technological developments give the big tech companies an entry point into a new industry, and Wilen said automakers are adjusting to this.

“Your headquarters of the auto industry could shift [to Silicon Valley] unless you change,” she said. “And a lot of them are partnering and going through transition because the whole industry is disrupted. And this could happen in any industry. It’s not just automotive. It could happen to yours.”

Ken Tysiac ( is a JofA editorial director.

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