Tag: talent

AI: Democratization or Dumbing of Creativity? Pick your Cause | Sherpas in Blue Shirts

The earlier assumption that artificial intelligence (AI) would impact “routine” jobs first is not holding ground anymore. Indeed, we might be deluding ourselves by thinking that the time in which AI could be the most used interface to engage with technology systems is far in the future. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at what’s happening today in the creative sector.

IBM Watson was used last year to create a 20th Century Fox movie trailer. Adobe Sensei is putting the digital experience in the hands of non-professionals. Google is leveraging AI with Autodraw to “help everyone create anything visual, fast.” Think about anyone, any one of us, taking a picture and then telling photo editing software what to do. No need to work with complex brushes, paints, or understanding of color patterns.

AI and creative talent

This is scary for creative people such as graphic designers, digital artists, and others who may consider artificial intelligence a job killing replacement of their skills, despite pundits’ claims that it will “augment” human capabilities. Antagonists proclaim that AI systems will at best reduce the overhead with which creative people deal. But removing overhead is just the first step; the next step is surely the creative. More so, AI systems can ingest so much data, and will increasingly rely on unsupervised learning to correlate so many behavioral traits to create compelling creative content that a human creative artist cannot possibly fathom or understand. Thus, these artists will begin leveraging AI systems to create exceptional, “unthinkable” user experiences that have no “baseline” of reference, but soon may be replaced by these very systems.

AI and businesses

Businesses have always struggled to hire highly skilled creative professionals, and have paid through the nose to secure and retain them. That they will be able to leverage artificial intelligence to take charge of creativity to drive messages and communication to their end users, rather than relying on creative experts, will make them extremely pleased. As the intent of most AI systems is to enable non-specialists to perform many tasks by “hiding what is under the hood,” businesses might not need as many specialist human creative skills.

However, despite this seeming upside of AI systems, their under the hood nature will create problems of accountability. The complexity of their deep learning and neural networks will become such that even the teams developing the systems won’t be able to provide answers to specific decisions they make. Thus, if something goes wrong, where should the blame be placed? With the creation team, or with the AI system itself? The system won’t care – after all, it’s just a technology – and the team members will argue that the system learned by itself, far beyond what was coded, and they cannot be held accountable for its misdeeds. This is scary for businesses.

AI and the impact beyond business

Imagine the impact this will have on the society. Although you can track back how any other technological system arrives at an answer, AI systems that are now supposed to run not only social infrastructure but also much our entire life won’t be accountable to anyone! This is scary for everyone.

I don’t want to add to the alarmist scare going on in the industry, but I cannot be blind to successful use cases I witness daily. People will argue that AI has a long way to go before it becomes a credible alternative to human-based creativity. But, the reality is that the road may not be as long as is generally perceived.

Modern Today, Legacy Tomorrow: The Nature of Fast-Changing Skill Demand in IT Services | Sherpas in Blue Shirts

It is no hidden fact that the outsourcing industry is on the cusp of change. While the labor arbitrage model and legacy ERP applications ruled the 1990s and 2000s, digital has become the heartthrob of the current decade, and you can see enterprises entering new forays to keep themselves relevant in this fast-changing business landscape.

In this context, even the demand for technical skills has changed tremendously over the past few years. Some skills that used to have the largest pull have become obsolete, and others are struggling to keep their hold in the IT services industry.

Specialist skills losing leverage against generic skills

Consider the case of SAP on-premise business solutions. Until recently, SAP as a skillset had been very attractive among fresh graduates and lateral hires alike. High market demand coupled with supply playing catch up meant higher wages and easy to switch options in the ever-competitive outsourcing market. But over the past few years, on-premise ERP and factory-led offshoring have matured to the extent that once premium technical skills such as ABAP or Basis no longer command the same leverage over generic skills such as Java, .NET, and COBOL. Even functional skills such as finance controller (FICO) or sales and distribution have seen their premium declining over the last few years.

Specialist skills such as Cognos, Informatica, and IBM Websphere are also facing the heat in large outsourcing deals, where high competition and enterprise awareness have forced service providers to utilize a common, generic rate card irrespective of the complexity or diversity of skills involved. Also, organizations such as NetSuite, Salesforce, SuccessFactors, and Workday provide a viable option with consumption-led pricing models, which make them highly attractive. The level of competition and clear buying trends are forcing even behemoths to come to the table with cloud-based, integrated business solutions. Think SAP with S/4 HANA, which is pushed aggressively by the company’s account sales teams.
With the change in the business landscape, there’s increasingly a clear preference for new age phenomena such as big data analytics, hyper-automation, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

The impact of IoT, digital technologies, and automation on skill demand

IoT is one area in which organizations are investing large sums for either cost optimization or revenue generation, depending on their business models. And it is one area in which hardware, firmware, mobility, cloud, and analytics specialists are in extremely high demand to address its hot growth. While the likes of Angular JS and Swift are being used to develop mobile applications, Hadoop and Spark are seeing a huge demand in data analytics. Even firmware and hardware engineers are being required to work in an agile fashion using DevOps methodology, a phenomenon never seen before in industrial manufacturing.

Another big area in which significant investment is being made is Service Delivery Automation (SDA). It is being looked at as a viable alternative to labor arbitrage. Enterprises are looking to automation to reduce costs and streamline business processes. Service providers and enterprises alike are scouting for Robotic Process Automation (RPA) developers and DevOps engineers for onshore/GIC/service provider operations to significantly downsize the low-level tasks performed offshore.

Overall, the current market is in a state of flux as digital takes precedence and legacy becomes less prominent. But the demand for digital services across enterprises is clear, regardless of existing market shares.

Accessing Relevant Talent is New Value Proposition for Impact Sourcing in South Africa | Sherpas in Blue Shirts

Earlier this year, Everest Group and The Rockefeller Foundation partnered on research in support of the Foundation’s Digital Jobs in Africa (DJA) initiative, the goal for which is to demonstrate the value of impact sourcing and promote its adoption in South Africa and beyond.

Impact sourcing is a business process service delivery model that provides employment opportunities to previously unemployed individuals who have not been meaningfully engaged in the formal economy. Generally, the individuals who are employed via impact sourcing belong to economically and/or socially disadvantaged backgrounds, or are differently-abled.

An overview of the impact sourcing market in South Africa in 2016
50 to 55 percent of the ~ 235,000 FTEs in the South Africa BPO market qualify as impact workers. This high share is because there is no, or limited, difference in the profile of impact and traditional workers hired in normal course of operations, meaning that although companies hire impact workers, they do not claim it to be impact sourcing.

Value proposition of impact sourcing in South Africa
As part of the 2016 engagement with The Rockefeller Foundation, our detailed business case included identification of six key elements to the impact sourcing value proposition in South Africa:

Impct Srcng SA 6 key elements


During our research, companies indicated that impact workers, especially those who have gone through training programs, exhibit better behavioral characteristics. These include higher adherence to timetable, lower absenteeism, higher motivation level, and lower attrition. In fact, as it relates to workforce stability, which is a critical component of the value proposition, the companies indicated almost 50 percent lower attrition among impact workers as compared to traditional workers.

Impact sourcing ecosystem in South Africa
A unique feature about impact sourcing in South Africa is the presence of a robust ecosystem comprised of BPO service providers, buyers, training academies, and government/industry associations. The presence of impact sourcing-focused training academies is a key element of this ecosystem.

These academies, such as Careerbox, Harambee, and Maharishi Institute, help buyers and service providers identify, screen, and train entry-level candidates through job readiness training or learnership programs. The thrust of these programs is on intentional talent development to ensure impact workers are employment ready. These programs include training on technical skills (e.g., computer literacy and language) and soft skills (e.g., adapting to a corporate environment, dealing with stress, and the benefits of stable employment).

In fact, providers including Aegis, CCI, and WNS have established their own in-house learnership programs as part of their intentional focus on impact sourcing.

What has changed since 2014?
Since our last study in 2014, there have been some significant positive developments in the impact sourcing market landscape in South Africa.

Perhaps the most important is the higher level of maturity exhibited by companies in understanding the benefits and challenges associated with impact sourcing, thereby, enhancing intentional adoption. Moreover, there has been a shift in the value proposition toward “accessing relevant talent” rather than just “cost savings.” In the past, companies had expressed concerns related to higher upfront training and the administration cost of impact sourcing programs. But our research established that the total cost of ownership (TCO) for impact sourcing is 3-10 percent lower than that of traditional sourcing. Finally, companies are increasingly adopting impact sourcing for the many different types of value it provides. For example, significantly lower attrition among impact workers not only contributes to improvement of the work culture of the organization, but also translates into better service delivery.

As there is an intrinsic link between adoption of impact sourcing in South Africa and the expansion of the BPO market in the country, there are understandably concerns around security risks, the impact of automation technologies, etc. Nevertheless, our study shows that the desire to intentionally adopt impact sourcing in the country has increased, and that the model is expected to grow, albeit gradually.

For more details on impact sourcing see our additional insight infographic.


US$6/hr IT Developers? | Sherpas in Blue Shirts

In early August, I participated in the 13th Brookings Blum Roundtable on Global Poverty, which focused on “The future of work in the developing world.” Our earlier work on Impact Sourcing with the Rockefeller Foundation was one of the featured pieces of content for the roundtable. The event included discussions on the impact of new technologies (e.g., automation, cognitive) on the nature of work and how that changes the required skills, training, and placement in jobs. In addition to incredibly engaging discussions, I had the opportunity to meet some innovative and passionate leaders of companies seeking to address these challenges in the developing world, from places such as India, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and South Africa. In this series of blogs, I will share some of the things I learned.

Sajid Shah is the co-founder of Empower Pakistan, an organization that utilizes freelancing platforms as a catalyst to nurture Pakistan’s nascent talent for digital skills. Upon graduating from college in Pakistan with a degree in electrical engineering, Sajid was unable to find a job. He started exploring the freelancing market available through digital platforms, and quickly began to grow a business that served clients globally. He also realized that many others could do the same thing if they simply had the right coaching and support to tap into global opportunities.

Understandably, geopolitical conditions have limited the attractiveness of Pakistan for multinational organizations. As a result, with a very young population of 200 million and an established education system, Pakistan can offer strong talent at highly competitive price points. Some organizations are indeed utilizing service delivery from Pakistan, but this is rare and tends to be for project work or non-critical business operations.

Empower Pakistan’s innovation is using the freelancing model to make global opportunities accessible to the talent in Pakistan, and doing so in a manner which helps accelerate the development of entrepreneurial businesses. To accomplish this, Sajid co-founded Empower Pakistan in 2014. The model works as follows.

First step – get “digital”

Individuals (already computer literate) are trained on “digital literacy” – the hot skills expected in the global market for contemporary technical development. This is accomplished through a series of workshops and exercises, and lasts about two months.

Second step – gain experience

Empower Pakistan coaches individuals on how to use freelancing platforms to find individual project work that helps them apply their skills plus learn from the work itself, e.g., project management, client management, and pricing. This approach also helps the individuals begin to develop entrepreneurial skills. This stage lasts for approximately a year.

Third step – the decision

Individuals have two basic options after gaining the relevant experience. One option is to receive further coaching from Empower Pakistan via its “LevelUp” program on how to expand the freelancing model to take on larger projects and become a business owner, typically employing other individuals to support completing larger and more comprehensive projects. LevelUp is world’s first accelerator for “digital nomads,” and Empower Pakistan aims to convert the independent entrepreneurs into business owners through this accelerator program. With over 2 million people in Pakistan registered on freelancing platforms, the potential is significant.

The second option is to join Grow Distributed, a service provider affiliated with Empower Pakistan. Grow Distributed provides distributed and dedicated teams to startups and major logos in developed countries.

This set of options allows individuals to either tap into their passion for developing their own entrepreneurial business, or pursue a deeper technical career. Regardless, both help the individual access opportunities for personal development and impact beyond the domestic Pakistan market.

In just over two years, Empower Pakistan has already conducted a series of nine freelancing starter workshops, with several hundred individuals participating. Over 13,000 freelancing projects (most fairly small) have been completed, providing a significant series of learning opportunities.

They aim to create 100,000 digital employment opportunities for Pakistani youth by 2020. Fresh college graduates employed in the domestic market of Pakistan typically earn about US$250 per month or roughly US$1.50 per hour. The freelancing work allows an individual earn roughly double this amount per month, while having a price point on the global market of approximately US$6 – a tremendous value for the quality of talent that is underutilized in Pakistan. The volume of individuals that can be impacted, combined with the increase in earnings potential and advancement of skills, can be a game changer for Pakistan.

So why might this be interesting to your organization?

For starters, this is a nice illustration of how freelancing work models are creating new ways to access talent and how work can be done. It not only globalizes the talent pool, but also enables small businesses to be built versus the typical assumption of just individuals working through a freelancing model. If you aren’t intentionally considering when to use freelancing models, you should be.

Further, with the increasing demands for digitization, talent is in short supply globally and a freelancing model is applicable for many digital marketing-oriented initiatives. At US$6 per hour, the cost of experimentation is exceptionally low – why not allocate several hundred or several thousand dollars to test out the model with a small project? Many marketing efforts are not subject to the same concerns about security (public-facing, easily separable,) and at such a low price point can be run in parallel with completing the work via a normal model.

A special thanks to Sajid for sharing the story of Empower Pakistan, and best wishes on the journey ahead!

Are Performance Breakthroughs Failing Due to Lack of Talent? | Sherpas in Blue Shirts

Where are the performance breakthroughs?

If you’re following my blogs regularly, you know that I’ve been discussing what we at Everest Group think is the issue of our time. Vetted, powerful new technologies such as cloud, analytics, cognitive computing and robotic process automation (RPA) should be making big differences in businesses; but for the most part, they’re achieving only modest, incremental benefits. I’ve also blogged about whether the maturity of the technologies is the reason for their not delivering performance breakthroughs. We need to also consider whether talent is the reason for the lack of a performance breakthrough.

A reasonable question is whether companies have people trained in using these technologies. Is the outcome of only modest benefits because of the IT talent? Do we need to replace our existing workforce or completely retrain our workforce?

In answering that question, I go back to the story I related in a prior blog about the breakthrough transformation American Express achieved in introducing its organization to agile development and DevOps. Yes, they spent some time retraining the IT organization, but they didn’t have to replace them. The people quickly adapted to the new technologies.

H. D. Smith, a pharmaceutical distributor since 1954, transformed its business to the digital world and expanded to providing innovative services and solutions. As I previously blogged about this case, there was some dislocation of existing staff; but for the most part, the existing people mastered the new technologies.

So we can’t explain the lack of performance breakthroughs from powerful, disruptive technologies as a lack of talent or a training issue alone. Yes, it can contribute to it. But there is plenty of talent to drive breakthrough performance, particularly if the promise of the technology is as big as it is. Furthermore, cost should not be a big issue for the kind of benefits that these technologies promise.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss another possible culprit for this phenomenon of only seeing modest, incremental benefits instead of performance breakthroughs from powerful new technologies.

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