About the Author – Pankaj Rai
Pankaj Rai is the Head of Strategic Planning at Wells Fargo’s Global Capability Center (GCC), where he is responsible for creating a culture of 3 Es (Effectiveness, Efficiency and Experience) in the shared services operations spread out across India and Philippines. Prior to this, he led the shared services Global Analytics team at Dell. In his professional career spanning more than 25 years, Pankaj started as a management consultant at Feedback Ventures and went on to work in the financial services industry with ICICI and GE Capital. His GIC career began with Standard Chartered Bank in their Singapore regional office, wherein he helped grow their shared service centers in India and Malaysia. Pankaj has been actively engaged in D&I and Sustainability initiatives and has been a part of various industry forums including NASSCOM. He has a degree in Electrical Engineering from IIT Delhi and an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.
Digital disruption will change whatever skills you have learnt. So you need to prepare for the future with the right attitudes, behaviors and perspectives, and the 5Cs— Curiosity, Compassion, Conviction, Creativity and Communication will be handy to face this uncertain evolving future.
What do I do to remain relevant in the Digital Era?
This is a question we all deal with continuously, not just for ourselves but also to advise others who are looking for directions and guidance. In this chapter, I will attempt to share my experiences, perspectives and more importantly, suggested actions we can take to build a career in the digital age. To finding an answer to the question we must start by exploring the following three key aspects:
- Context of change: Articulating what is changing and why
- Impact of change: Understanding what this change means for us
- Response to change: Exploring how we can respond to this with actionable approaches.
Understanding the Context of Change:
What is Changing and Why?
Our timelines are often explained in terms of four phases of the industrial revolution, and therefore, four phases of human progress—upgrading from agricultural and steam to power, to manufacturing to the information age, to now the emergence of the digital phase. If we look at the trend of change from a demand or consumption point of view, it is natural to decipher that first humans focused on basic needs (agricultural consumption), and having satisfied that need, moved on to satisfying other material needs (industrial revolution), then leading to consuming more services (Internet era), and now progressing into the next frontier of a connected community (digital age)—in other words, the era of collaborative cognitive, creation as well as consumption. Let us now look at three key characteristics that define these changes, so that we can come up with approaches to deal with these.
One trend to note here is that each subsequent era was characterized by a faster pace than the previous one, given that the new era was driven by a more efficient structure, leading to faster progress. If we zoom into the time dimension, we observe that the first two phases lasted a few generations, and hence these two phases were inter-generational. However, the third phase came within one generation. Given that human life expectancy is higher today and change is happening at a faster pace, the next phase will be, for the first time, an intra-generational change, a kind of tipping point of the rate of change. One manifestation of this is the adoption of new technology which has a very short shelf life, becoming obsolete every 5–10 years. We see the new generation being defined basis a comparison against several decades (remember the boomers?).
So the key is continuous reinvention now versus continuous improvement of the earlier phase.
Another way to look at this trend of change is that the initial phases of change were linear, where one could make incremental improvements and move ahead of others. That has already changed in the Internet age, which has given way to an era of continuous improvement and continuous reinvention. For example, in the past, Toyota could become the leader by having a culture of daily meetings, coming up with small changes, and beating those who were not evolving continuously. However, Tesla proved that it is possible to redefine transportation using a totally new approach, almost the same way the automobiles had disrupted horse-drawn carriages. As if that was not enough (Tesla is a transport company), Apple and Alphabet (no one ever thought of them as evolving into a transport company) started making inroads into self-driving cars, further strengthening the continuous reinvention trend. Amazon is a good example of this trend; it has entered seemingly unrelated business segments and became a market leader in those—be it books or cloud or retail, and now the giant is targeting several others including financial services. So the key is continuous reinvention now versus continuous improvement of the earlier phase.
Our Mental Models Are Not Adept at Dealing
The final observation I have on this trend of change is that both human desire and ingenuity are infinite, and we are now reaching a tipping point or escape velocity or breakdown of Moore’s law (pick your favorite analogy), and hence the old laws will not apply anymore. New ones will have to be invented—to explain this new normal, and to deal with it and forecast the future. This observation is further strengthened by the fact that there are several other megatrends that are entirely new—a prospect of a secular trend of declining population in many geographies, negative interest rates, universal basic income—these require new theories and approaches to deal with. So, in a nutshell, the new digital era has three new characteristics that are different from the last three phases and is driven by the rapid pace of change—intra-generational, nonlinear, and we need to invent new mental models.
Impact of Change: What Does This Change Mean for Us?
The first and foremost theme of this new digital era is that since it is intra-generational, it will have an opportunity to disrupt our lives several times, and hence has the possibility to catch more people off-guard than in the previous era. Some people missed the industrial era but that was just one disruption in that generation, hence many were also able to adapt, even if at a slower pace. I believe that this new change will impact everyone; so it is not the problem of one country or one segment of the population. We all need to think about the changes that have already hit us and many more to come, and do something, and not just hope that we will not be impacted. We constantly and consciously need to prepare ourselves for the change.
I believe that this new change will impact everyone; so it is not the problem of one country or one segment of the population. We all need to think about the changes that have already hit us and many more to come, and do something, and not just hope that we will not be impacted.
The second theme is that each individual or population will be impacted differently, and hence there will be no cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all solution. Each individual/ segment will need a varied approach to deal with it. This one becomes complicated as we have been used to fewer choices in the past decades (in academics, choose STEM vs. humanities vs. commerce), and made life-changing decisions only once or twice in a lifetime (in academics again, whether to pursue an MBA after a few years of working in engineering or aim for a certain career path), but the expectation now is to make many choices more frequently— to ensure one does not deviate or miss out the right opportunities for oneself. In summary, these changes will impact everyone and differently;so we need to collaborate with one another more than ever before.
So, How Do We Respond to Constant Changes?
Let me share an anecdote from two years back when my daughter was going to college to study economics, and my better half asked me to provide guidance to our daughter on what she ought to do. I created a logical framework, based on the economic theory of supply and demand (derived from data and some intuition) that can stand the test of time and guide her in making better career choices. Thus, the 3C framework was born, keeping in mind the above three macro trends and basis that, an attempt to forecast the skills/ attributes that will be in short supply or dearth in the future, and hence will be valued at a premium. In short, these skills would be necessary if one wants to be successful.
So here goes the 3C framework.
A key trend in the last generation has been globalization; however, the trickle-down or equitable distribution of the larger pie created by capitalism has not played out over the last few decades. No matter how much we speak about customer empathy and customer-centricity, today we still see a reversal of that, trend, and the starting of the era of deglobalization and a fierce attempt to protect one’s own turf, own community, own self. So, in my view, the first C that will likely be in dearth in the future will be compassion. Everyone will look inward, and hence, being inclusive and compassionate to other beings and the environment will be a key attribute to inculcate—and probably a rare and valuable one in the future.
The second attribute relates to the choices available to us. In the past, we lived in the era of scarcity, there were binary choices—of professions one could take up to be successful (engineer or doctor), brands available for household goods, scooters (Vespa or Lambretta), cars (Fiat or Ambassador), or any other thing you can think of. You either did not like one of those options or could not get one option easily. Hence, you went for the other available option and remained satisfied with that choice. Today there are infinite choices and irrespective of the choice we exercise, there is a possibility that we could have done better, as there is always someone who did better. This leads to unhappiness, rise in mental illness, and hence the C that is in short supply here is Conviction. It will be necessary to believe in ourselves while we make choices through adequate research and self-assessment, and not comparing ourselves with others—this is a rare skill these days. In the future, those who are able to develop conviction are the ones who are likely to be successful and happy.
The third key attribute is that the linear growth model mentioned earlier has been disrupted by a non-linear model, and hence Creativity to navigate or stand out in the crowd and noise will be in demand, and in short supply. The linear model required the use of skills such as six sigma to drive continuous improvement, but today we need a Swiss knife-like range of skills in addition to process management including skills such as design thinking, automation, AI/ML, blockchain, mobile, social, agile, 3-D printing, and so on. The right combination of these will be needed to creatively define and solve problems.
It will be necessary to believe in ourselves while we make choices through adequate research and self-assessment, and not comparing ourselves with others—this is a rare skill these days.
Further reflection on the 3 Cs—Compassion, Conviction, and Creativity made me believe that these three attributes are probably interdependent. For example, compassion (appreciation of the wider context) should lead to conviction (our role in that context), which in turn might lead to creativity (the best way to contribute in our role).
Curiosity and Communication
Over years, I have realized the emergence of yet another C, Curiosity. It is becoming increasingly important before one can develop compassion. In addition, Communication of whatever creative work we are doing allows us to share and gather inputs and complete that feedback loop. So, I would add two more Cs—one at the beginning and one at the end to upgrade this into a 5C framework. Hence, my takeaways for the future is that digital disruption will change whatever skills you have learnt. So, to prepare for the future, you need a blend of the right attitudes, behaviors, and perspectives and the 5 Cs—Curiosity, Compassion, Conviction, Creativity, and Communication, which will be handy to face this uncertain evolving future.
Our loyalty must be with a cause and not with a company—continuous learning, upgrading, creating an impact, and so on to make ourselves suitable for the cause.
Using the 5 C’s to Carve a Career Path
The next question is: “Given the 5 Cs, how should I build a career for the digital era:
What learning interventions, experiences, courses or programs should I take up? Should I pursue an MBA, does a college brand name matter, are offline courses superior to online programs, and a plethora of related questions.” To get to an answer to this, let us consider the following:
1. Choose the Right Role: If we look at companies such as Amazon, there are usually two types of roles in the organization—product management and engineering roles. In other words, some roles are closer to the customer and few are closer to technology. There is an option of being a superhuman who could do both, but usually, people are good at and enjoy only one of these roles—being close to the customer or the technology and innovation. So, my suggestion is, reflect on your past experience and decide which one comes naturally to you. Once you determine that, try and acquire the relevant skills using a plethora of courses, programs, on-the-job assignments and if I may say so—changing jobs much more frequently than you have felt comfortable with, to gather a range of experiences.
2. De-emphasize Company Loyalty: The last statement in the previous paragraph is something many will debate but my own view is that the fast-changing world needs to disrupt the core idea of company loyalty. Our loyalty must be with a cause and not with a company—continuous learning, upgrading, creating an impact, and so on to make ourselves suitable for the cause. My guess is that the same company may not be able to provide all the opportunities and hence frequent job changes will become a norm which today is frowned upon. Probably, in the future, staying for too long in one company may have the same stigma that is attached with changing too many jobs today.
3. Enhance Collaborative Creation and Consumption: One of the key requirements of a connected or social world is that one cannot create an impact alone. They will need to be interdisciplinary and forge connections with people with other capabilities so that they can be combined to make a bigger impact. Hence, it will be essential to form relationships and collaborations to amplify the impact. This is a relatively new kind of skill, especially in the technology industry as one needs to adapt from being an individual superhero to be a collaborative individual, capable of maximizing the ecosystem. Forming relationships and networking does not come naturally to many, and what I have observed is that networking has been used as a method to get something done (a favor, job, and so on). That strategy does not work for too long, and one needs to be acclimatized to a new give based approach to ensure a symbiotic relationship that is long-lasting.
4. Redefine Networking: As touched upon in the previous section, in the future, I think the networker will need to evolve from being a go-getter to a go-giver. Hence, we need to redefine how to go about networking, and what to do in the first few meetings. I would say that there are three things one can keep in mind in the initial networking meetings—share or give something that the other person does not know and would be interested in. Next, seek advice on something they are good at and you can learn from. Finally, offer to help. This approach allows one to have continued subsequent interactions and the possibility of creating a long-lasting relationship that helps both parties over the long run.
5. Relook at Role Models: To navigate the uncertain and complex scenario today, most people believe in having a role model. However, I think the idea of having a single role model was appropriate when the rate of change was slow. Today, it is important to have several role models, learn specific things from many, and create your own customized Lego block model of skills. Based on where you feel your success lies, you would need to customize a personalized roadmap, and to reach there, learn and draw insights from several role models.
6 Refine Success Measures: The final question then is: How does one know that the relationship building or networking, as well as your continuous learning, is actually working and driving the results that you want? One of the tests I propose is a thought experiment. Let us consider a scenario where you have lost your job—how many people can you call up? How many of those you think will be willing to talk to you at length? And how many will be willing to recommend you? And finally, how many will go out of the way to help you? Ideally if all the above is working, then you may consider growing the number of connections you develop each passing year. Another thought experiment I propose is, to have a predictive resume, that is, what your resume would look like 3 years from now in terms of capabilities built, experiences gained, and so on. Once you have this wishlist resume ready, attempt to develop the experiences or skills during the year to ensure one is making progress toward that goal.
In future, I think the networker will need to evolve from being a go-getter to a go-giver.
- We are moving into an age of continuous reinvention, wherein old decision-making models will need to be upturned and we need to focus on the 5 Cs to provide guidance on how to conduct our work and life.
- Given that the future belongs to platforms and ecosystems, the collaboration will become a central theme for progress, and hence soft and behavior-focused skills and attitudes will be much more relevant than hard skills that are likely to become automated eventually.
- Based on your inclinations and experience, determine whether you are inclined toward a customer-focused (product manager) role or technology-focused (engineering manager) role. Then take up courses or assignments within and outside your company to hone those skills.
- Finally, consider the idea of flipping the question related to career and jobs, changing your mindset from constantly trying to be a job seeker to being a job creator.
So, what is your career strategy in this evolving digital world?
You can connect with the author Pankaj Rai here