Building Talent for the New Digital First Economy

It’s clear that the days of specialization of labour, where generations of people stayed in the same business or role, are numbered. GV Ravishankar distils five mantras to keep yourself future proof from an India Internet Day panel on building talent for the digital first economy.

GV Ravishankar

Published August 14, 2020

Ankur Warikoo, founder of Nearbuy, recently disclosed on his Twitter handle that a full one week of his tweets had been generated by GPT-3 – an AI platform.

GPT is short for Generative Pre-training Transformer, a language model published in 2018 by OpenAI, Elon Musk’s Artificial Intelligence research laboratory. GPT-3 can generate samples of news articles which evaluators struggle to distinguish from articles written by humans. GPT-3 has been used to create code from text, including graphical UI. It can answer any complex medical question, write a poem and even give life advice like Ankur Warikoo does so well!

GPT-3, which has effectively ingested almost everything humans have published online, is the most powerful language model ever. The model works with 175 billion parameters (the values a neural network tries to optimize during training), which in AI terms is huge. Drawing on all the text available on the Internet, GPT-3 performs really well on tasks like word prediction and common sense reasoning. And because it has lots of data to figure out what response is most plausible, the predictions tend to be quite accurate—too accurate for some people who fear software based on GPT-3 will replace their jobs. Articles that claim GPT-3 is coming for the jobs of programmers, script writers, creative writers, lawyers, journalists and accountants are already starting to appear. While some of the fears may be unfounded, it is clear that technology will continue to eat into jobs.

It was in this context that India Internet Day’s panel on “Building Talent for the New Digital First Economy” became very topical. Here, I had the opportunity to join founders of three higher education EdTech companies – Shreyasi Singh of Harppa Education, Ashwin Damera of Eruditus Learning and Mayank Kumar of Upgrad — in a conversation on what jobs of a digital first world would demand of employees and how best to prepare for such a world.

Here’s some of the insights that emerged from the discussion.

The changing arc of the typical career

The average time people spend in a specific job is dwindling rapidly. Mayank shared how the ratio of the number of years of a candidate’s work life to the number of jobs held so far – one of his standard interview questions – continues to rapidly dwindle compared to the typical interviewee’s parent’s generation, who often worked in the same job for decades. I remember 30% of students from my business school batch (2004) changed their post-graduate jobs within the first year. I can only imagine what the rate is now. The rapid movement between companies and roles also comes with the need to learn new skills to succeed in the new job.

With increasing life expectancy, improving health and dwindling savings rates, most of us are likely to be working for five or six decades. Citing the book “The 60-year curriculum: New models of lifelong learning for the digital economy”, Shreyasi talked about how there’s a need to re-invent how employees learn given most people will have many different jobs and even entirely new careers over a five or six decade period, given the rapid pace of innovation.

Five mantras to keep yourself future proof

1. Learning to learn:

The rate of change is already high and will continue to accelerate. In a world where the half-life of skills is decreasing, learning how to learn better is a key ingredient to keeping pace with what we’ll need to learn. Each of us learn differently and understanding and becoming aware of that allows us to learn both efficiently and effectively. This is the “sharpening the axe” part of felling a tree.

2. Learning to be disciplined (about learning): A world that’s increasingly digital also implies a more dominant role for online learning. Online learning, while effective, also demands higher discipline compared to other learning models as it usually has a healthy mix of asynchronous learning. Without a teacher to monitor, engage and handhold, people need to have – or build – the discipline to remain focused on task in hand.

3. Learning to change: Change is the only constant, as they say. And while we all want to have that dream job or career, in a world with so much flux, learning to change and willingness to be flexible are key aspects of survival. Emphasis on core skills that allow you to adapt to new markets and careers is one way to be relevant

4. Learning to communicate: Communication is one such core skill. In a world now dominated by Zoom, WhatsApp and Slack, spoken and written communication have become even more critical in our ability to convey opinions, influence others and be effective. In a future where companies and employees are increasingly global, learning to communicate effectively, both across cultures and remotely, is an essential skill that’s worth investing in.

5. Learning continuously/ Investing in learning – A more global, borderless world will also mean we will compete with global talent. ‘Work From Home’ is now the new norm, and the best talent can come from anywhere. In such a competitive talent market, investing in continuous learning is the only way to stay relevant and stay ahead.

The good news for all of us is that high quality, continuous learning is now accessible, reasonably affordable, and can be pursued with tremendous flexibility – without interrupting our current work lives. Be it the start-ups that my panellists represent or the MOOCs which have several very high-quality programs, we have a plethora of high-quality courses available online, driven by great founders who have made future-proofing people like us their core mission. This is an incredibly important space that we’ve been watching for several years. With renewed investor interest in this theme, we will only see many more such platforms emerge in the future!

What should kids be doing?

As a father of a newly-minted teenager, I couldn’t resist asking for advice for the next generation of job seekers who still have a few years to build the right foundation. The advice I received was for children to keep their curiosity alive (read a lot), to learn to communicate (and understand basic psychology) and learn some basic math (or coding!). One framework recommended by Ashwin was the T framework – go deep in one domain and be broad across other skills (like leadership, communication and team work,). Very valuable advice indeed!

In summary, it is clear that the days of specialization of labour, where generations of people stayed in the same business or role, are numbered. The future belongs to those who are able to sit comfortably at the edge of chaos, deftly mastering the new technology, tasks and concepts coming at them – and sometimes even defining how they’re deployed. Maybe we want to tell our children that the most important things that matter are a deep sense of curiosity, a desire to learn and the will to adapt. In other words, success will come to those who see themselves as “work-in-progress” versus as finished products. I, for one, want to be a perpetual beta!

This column was originally published on LinkedIn.