In a digital future, will your workforce still be your greatest asset?

By EY Global

Ernst & Young Global Ltd.

4 minute read 22 Mar 2019

Our 2018 Global Alumni Survey offers insights into how organizations can reboot skills growth and ethical frameworks for the future of work.

What we know as work is changing. Automation and cognitive computing offer huge productivity potential, but also raise big questions about the nature of work and how humans can thrive in a cyber-physical world. What skills will be needed and how do we develop those capabilities in our people? How will ethical judgements and frameworks need to be reframed for a robotic, data-driven age? Our 2018 Global Alumni Survey, drawing on the views of over 9,000 professionals, offers a global perspective on these critical issues as organizations look to redefine the future of work.

Two priorities for the workforce of the future

Significant workforce shifts such as automation do not just create uncertainty for workers, they also create uncertainty for leaders. Organizations will need to not only drive an automation strategy, they will also need to upskill their workforce to transition to a machine-driven age. And, in a data-rich world, serious risks arise if your people are not equipped to answer new and complex ethical questions.

1. Building tomorrow’s skills, today

Smart machines are already making inroads into human roles, from how lawyers mine information to how journalists write news releases. But there are limits to what machines can do and tomorrow’s high-performing organizations will combine smart technologies with smart people.

Organizations are already looking to build the digital skills of their people. Global telco giant, AT&T, is reported to be investing $1 billion to reskill its global employee base for new jobs by 2020.

However, as well as digital skills, social and emotional capabilities will also be critical. Examples of these capabilities would be the ability to collaborate, or high comfort with ambiguity and change. When we asked our alumni to look back and identify the key skills that they learnt during their time at EY – and which continue to help them tackle their key challenges – they told us that “applying critical thinking” was top of the list.1

“Applying critical thinking” is the skillset that most alumni look back on as the major EY-developed competence that equips them to meet their current challenges.

The importance placed on being a critical thinker reflects today’s disrupted and complex world. In today’s environment, the ability to question assumptions, manage ambiguity and embrace different perspectives has never been more important. Building critical thinking is not just about training people in a skill. It is also about creating a culture where discussion and debate are encouraged and where good (and bad) decisions are analyzed so that lessons can be learnt.

2. Equip your people for the world of digital and data ethics

A strong sense of ethics has always been critical in business as the foundation of professional relationships. It continues to be just as important in the digital age, but the nature of ethical judgements is changing. In a digital economy that is powered by data, organizations face new risks, new governance requirements and new ethical questions. Today, there is particular focus on organizations using personal data in a way that the individual did not want or expect. How consumers feel about data-sharing is changing fast

If these risks are not managed, the cost – say in brand reputation damage – can be significant and lasting. It’s important that organizations put a priority on their people’s ability to make the right ethical judgements.

As a start point, organization leaders need to put a priority on ethics. Three-quarters of our alumni say that their time at EY instilled a strong sense of ethics and ‘doing the right thing’. And, the longer people spent at EY, the more ingrained this trait became.

Doing the right thing at EY


of people who were at EY for four to five years said that their time at the firm instilled a strong sense of ethics. For EY alumni who spent 15 years or more at the firm, this percentage increased to 90%.

But, in our data-driven age, debates around ethics will become more complex. How an organization’s people apply ethical judgements will mean asking different questions. Do consumers currently have enough choice and transparency about how their personal data is used? If a consumer makes the decision to not accept an organization’s data use terms and conditions, will they be excluded from a service or technology?

New regulatory frameworks are setting compliance standards for some of these areas, such as data privacy. However, because it’s likely that laws in many jurisdictions will remain a step behind data innovation, organizations should take the proactive step of assessing their ethical standpoint on how they use data. If employees have a strong understanding of the organization’s ethical standpoint on data, better decisions will be made about how they unlock value from data. This culture also needs to be reinforced with the right controls, frameworks and best practices.

Future-proofing your workforce

The sweeping changes of the digital revolution are upending everything we take for granted today about how work is done. If leaders do not embrace this change, they could find that their people are not the organization’s greatest asset, but one of its biggest risks.

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For the workforce of the future, organizations will need to upskill staff and place a priority on ethics.

About this article

By EY Global

Ernst & Young Global Ltd.