Talent for growth: innovation, skills and AI

What skills are companies looking for and how can they attract, retain and grow talent? Kian Katanforoosh, CEO and founder of skills intelligence platform Workera, explains all.


This article is taken from the Spring 2024 issue of

Think Global People magazine

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View your copy of the Spring 2024 issue of Think Global People magazine.
Few people understand the implications of AI on the workforce more than Kian Katanforoosh. The company he set up, Workera, has helped many organisations from Accenture to Siemens augment their workforce. An award-winning Stanford University lecturer, he has also taught AI to over 3 million people along with colleague Andrew Ng.But a big passion of his has always been equitable learning and skills; and how those skills can be measured to optimise the performance of individuals and the companies they work for. And so, Workera was born – a skills-development platform that helps organisations understand, develop and mobilise talent.

Sparking innovation

So, why do organisations need to make better talent decisions? “I think it's necessary for a lot of reasons. The primary one is innovation and the need for companies to continue developing themselves without being disrupted,” he explains. “An organisation that gets stuck is bound to disappear in the future.”Several factors underpin innovation. “Making good talent decisions improves the company in various ways,” says Katanforoosh. “It makes it more innovative, which makes it more likely to launch products and services that are set for the future and serve its customers or users better.“It also improves the retention of your associates and employees as you’re improving things like productivity and doing a lot more with less. That also gives your company and employees room to focus on the important work. And then it becomes this self-fulfilling prophecy. If you accelerate – you accelerate more. If you slow down – you slow down more.“In many ways, that's part of what AI is doing right now. It exponentially enhances an organisation that becomes more skills-based and ends up producing more. And because it produces more, it ends up having more in return. It can then continue on this virtuous cycle.”

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Why skills-based organisations win

For many global companies, the methods used to gain, develop and retain talent haven’t really changed much over the years. Yet Katanforoosh recognises how a few organisational changes can make a significant impact in the face of rapid skills changes and the emergence of highly disruptive technologies like generative AI, which are causing people to update skills twice as fast.“There are so many ways to attract, retain and nurture talent. The first one is to become a skills-based organisation and there’s lots of ways to do that,” he enthuses. “What’s special about skills-based organisations is that they are fair. They're meritocratic. They retain top talent and steer away people who may not be a fit for the organisation.“They help organisations thrive and raise the bar for employees to perform better and employees enjoy performing well. I often use the example of sports teams. Sports was the first industry that demonstrated how skills-based organisations can really thrive today. If you think for example about Premier League football, the coaches all know the statistics about every single player. They evaluate and analyse the skills of their players to understand their speed, precision, right foot, left foot and so on. Everything is tracked and calculated in a way that they can design the best team to compete against the next opponent.“And, because they’re being tracked, their potential is being unlocked and they perform better. Top players are then attracted to work for the highest performing teams like Manchester City, Arsenal and so on as a result. This same idea is starting to trickle down to more industries, with a twist of course, but it’s essentially the same model and has real benefits for both organisations and their employees.”But how can organisations lock in and grow the talent they have worked so hard to attract and develop? Put simply, measure and manage your employees’ skills to drive growth and learning, and incentivise your employees to empower them to grow more.

Incentivise learning

“Self-directed learning is dead,” says Katanforoosh. “That may sound radical, but over the last ten years there has been this general perception that making lots of educational content available to employees is good for them and that they're going to enjoy it and develop. But we see very few employees engaging with it. Employees are saying it's too easy, too hard or not relevant to their jobs. And if it is of interest, then they’re thinking why would I spend 200 hours on a class if it doesn't lead to a promotion or some sort of reward for me?”Instead, he recommends incentives that come top down with a clear goal and that are rewarded.  This could be an opportunity to work on a new project, access to more tools, getting a mentor or a financial incentive. “My advice is that companies need to multiply the carrots that will motivate people to learn and to do that in a skills-based fashion.”

Grow your existing talent

It is common for organisations to think they may not have the talent they need and that’s why X or Y is not being achieved. Yet Katanforoosh urges companies to look internally more than externally. Many companies now consider reskilling an essential part of their employee value proposition. Companies like Vodaphone, Wipro and Infosys all provide the tools for huge chunks of their existing workforce to reskill and enter a completely new career path within their own organisations.“In the AI age, most companies cannot compete for talent,” says Katanforoosh. “You cannot compete with Google. You cannot compete with Meta. You cannot compete with Netflix. You cannot compete with Microsoft. So look internally at your existing people and how you can develop them.“Look at those who have cultural values that are aligned with your company and help them get to the level of a Google engineer, a Facebook product manager or a Netflix product designer. You are more likely to be successful as an organisation by focusing on your existing talent base and getting the most out of them rather than trying to simply replace them or hire several people in.“This comes with nuances of course. But look to empower your existing talent and if you need to hire in, do it very strategically so those hires will continue to lift and empower your existing people.”

Kian Katanforoosh: 60 seconds on what talent global organisations want and need most

AI and data people would be the first. There are many different levels and personas in that area to consider when trying to build an organisation’s capabilities. You have your ‘centre of excellence’ if you like. These are your highly technical, top-level practitioners who are building the infrastructure and the systems that help the rest of the organisation acquire, query and play with data.One level down you have AI+X individuals – the ‘X’ stands for domain expertise. They could be a financial analyst, product designer, manufacturing engineer or aerospace turbine engineer who has a very deep understanding of one technical area outside of AI and who is learning and using AI to enhance and build on their specialist area.AI fluency is another talent area in demand. These are not technical specialists, but they are interacting with technical individuals on a regular basis. For instance, a project manager or global talent or HR manager who is trying to help hire AI talent for an organisation and needs to know how to talk about AI.And then you have AI-literacy talent levels. These are people who are not necessarily working with technical practitioners, but who are somehow impacted by AI or have opportunities to increase their productivity with AI. For example, people in customer support who use AI-based tools, or blue-collar workers who may use AI-assisted machines.The second talent area would be cybersecurity. The more prevalent AI becomes, the more risks we’re likely to have around cybersecurity. Data governance is a big one.The third talent need would be around general software and broader digital skills. We have seen a lot of companies that have a CEO mandate on digitalisation.And lastly, soft skills or power skills that uniquely make us human. Roles that are more focused on leadership, critical thinking and so on. Skills in responsible AI are also in demand and becoming more topical.

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