(L-R) Panelists Utpal Mangla, vice president and partner at IBM; Simon Adams, chief product officer of Gracenote; Mitra Best, lead principal for strategic innovation and technology for PwC; and Chad Andrews, global solutions leader for advertising at IBM; and panel moderator Luca Marchi, associate partner in IBM’s Center of Competence for Telecommunications, Media and Entertainment Industry, at the 2nd Annual Workforce of the Future Symposium, held in 2019 at The Soraya.

(L-R) Panelists Utpal Mangla, vice president and partner at IBM; Simon Adams, chief product officer of Gracenote; Mitra Best, lead principal for strategic innovation and technology for PwC; and Chad Andrews, global solutions leader for advertising at IBM; and panel moderator Luca Marchi, associate partner in IBM’s Center of Competence for Telecommunications, Media and Entertainment Industry, at the 2nd Annual Workforce of the Future Symposium, held in 2019 at The Soraya.

The case for corporate-academic partnerships to upskill students for the future

The Coronavirus pandemic has brought astonishing change, very quickly, regarding just about everything. In many cases, these changes portend almost inevitable permanence, promising broad and deep consequences that are only now beginning to emerge.

In “Digital Strategy in a Time of Crisis” published as part of the McKinsey Digital series in April, mountains of data, and anecdotes across disparate industries, support the authors’ general claim of a seismic cultural shift that goes far beyond just tactical responses to the crisis.

They cite examples of businesses that once mapped digital strategy in one- to three-year phases who must now act in a matter of days or weeks. They suggest that concerns about customer and market penalties for dramatic and scaled experimentation have vanished in the face of a new imperative to test, learn and adapt quickly. They point out that steep organizational obstacles have flattened, as have decision-making structures, timelines, and mores.

The authors cite shifts in board priorities that account for more than just immediate shareholder returns, and in finance department propensities to fund initiatives deliberately. Customer adoption curves have adapted, and in response, organizational cultures that long defied agile work methods have been forced to keep pace, by hacking away at the inertia of entrenched silos of expertise and power. All of this has played out in recognition of a new truth: the future belongs to the nimble, not the established. Consider:

• In an economy that depends upon consumer spending for 70% of its vitality, the products and services that consumers value, the processes by which they research and acquire them, and the manner in which they accept delivery have all turned on a digital dime.

• In higher education, web-based approaches to pedagogy that languished for a decade now attract urgent investment and the full embrace of the faculties who govern the nation’s colleges and universities.

• In health care, the technology to provide telemedicine is hardly new, but this crisis broke through the optics and the cultural taboos, with virtual primary care appointments now established in a fashion that’s likely to endure.

• In the world of media, entertainment and sports, only one thing has changed. Everything.

All evidence suggests that the COVID-19 crisis will accelerate the data- and technology-driven disruptions that were already underway. Within that context, perhaps no decision facing corporate directors and executives will have a more lasting impact, for their companies and for society as a whole, than determining the right balance and the proper blending of astonishing technology with human talent.

In April 2018, this author participated in a week-long program that focused on digital strategy, with over a hundred corporate executives from across the globe. Over dinner one evening, the CEO of a diversified, publicly traded firm suggested this:

“The corporate sector has yet to unleash even a fraction of the technology that’s available to them, because they fear the political blowback of massive employment disruptions. Who needs a product boycott during a hot economy? But when the next recession comes, look out. Firms will use the macroeconomic cover to go all in.”

Going all-in with technology during a full-employment economy, or under the cover of a normal recession, is one thing. Doing so in the face of depression-level labor force conditions is quite another, especially for firms with dominant employment footprints in their communities. Progressive and responsible boards may find that if they stare down the exigent circumstances of this crisis with strategic technology alone, they could create new and potent forms of ESG governance, scrutiny and shareholder risk. Getting it right will demand significant and enduring investments in people, not just machines.

Over the past few years, CSUN’s David Nazarian College of Business and Economics, has focused intensively on our responsibility to prepare a diverse and talented student body for the workforce of the future. “Data first” has been our guiding principle in both curricular and co-curricular innovations. But we, and other schools like us, need help in the form of new and creative corporate/academic partnerships.

IBM’s Skills Academy provides turnkey curriculum, and faculty certification for student badging programs on deep dives into cutting edge technologies. This past summer, AT&T opened some of their most sophisticated internal training programs, without charge, to undergraduate students in an 80-hour Summer Learning Academy Extern Program which covered 34 different skills – both hard and “soft.” PwC has committed more than $3 billion to their Digital Upskilling Journey to prepare their global workforce for the future of work. Through the “Access Your Potential” initiative, they are adding a new focus on academic institutions that serve racially and ethnically diverse students in underserved communities.

These are impressive examples of corporate-academic partnerships, and there are more of them out there. Overcoming the institutional, marketing, legal and contractual barriers to their wide-spread distribution is an urgent priority to prepare the workforce of the now.

Author’s Note: The Nazarian College’s 3rd Annual Workforce of the Future Symposium has been scheduled as an entirely virtual affair for Thursday, November 5 at 4:30 pm, with David Kenny, CEO of Nielsen, as the keynote. Registration details at csun.edu/futureworkforce.

Robert Sheridan serves as the Executive Director of Center for Career Education and Professional Development at CSUN’s Nazarian College. The views expressed here are his own.

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