Digital-age technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and robotics are the latest buzzwords. There is a frenzied debate around how they are disrupting industries, introducing efficiencies and re-imagining the future.

As it usually is with trends, everyone is falling in line—scrambling to adopt a new technology without really understanding its impact.

In this melee, companies are forgetting the most important aspect of any transformation—people. With rapid change and disruption becoming a way of life, people are more crucial than ever in shaping the new future.

Here’s what companies on the verge of a strategic transformation need to do—step back, breathe and take stock of what these technologies can do for the people who will actually be using them, be it customers, employees or other stakeholders.

Technology is not a magic pill

A large retail client who wanted to jump on the technology bandwagon invested a considerable amount of time and money in adopting what they thought was a one-stop software for all their requirements.

The system was supposed to streamline operations, increase efficiency and enhance customer experience. Only, it did not end up doing that. Why? The system was too complicated and cumbersome. It was developed to follow the general best practices of the industry, but didn’t take into account the on-ground challenges faced by the very people it was meant for—the employees. No wonder, it did not deliver as expected.

We have seen this time and again with many of our clients. They often want to adopt the latest technology under the misguided notion that it would solve all their problems. But what they fail to understand is that technology is not a magic pill. It is just a tool—one that, if not placed in the right hands, will not deliver as expected.

A PwC study has demonstrated that two-thirds of all digital transformations fail because they introduce new complexities and expect people to change their habits. Companies need to understand how the new technologies will impact their employees, investors and customers, and adapt the technology to the people instead of doing it the other way around.

It all starts at the top

According to PwC’s 21st CEO survey, over 60% of Indian CEOs are concerned about the digital skills of their senior leadership. This is a cause for alarm. If the leaders themselves are not digitally agile, how can they expect to lead their teams into the new age?

It’s time for the senior leadership to introspect. They don’t need to be tech experts but can they contextualize data? Are they aware of the basic skill-sets required to lead the company into the digital age? Are they familiar with emerging tech and its impact on their business and industry? Have they successfully broken down silos between their departments/functions to solve problems together?

Such introspection will require changing mindset and behaviour to incorporate a more open work culture that breaks barriers and fosters innovation. It will mean adopting a startup mentality as opposed to a more siloed, hierarchical style of management.

Transparency is key

Technological advances typically give rise to irrational and unfounded fears. Is technology rapidly changing the way we work? Definitely. Is it replacing us? Not necessarily.

It is, however, redefining the way we work. It is important to remember that many of the jobs we do today didn’t even exist a couple of decades ago. While on the one hand technology is making certain aspects of a role redundant, it is also creating new roles and responsibilities.

Firms need to be transparent about how they propose to use AI and other emerging tech. They should educate employees on the benefits of adopting such technologies. When such technology adoptions cause changes in a task or role, firms should not only offer clarification to employees but also ensure they are properly skilled to adapt to that change.

Upskilling isn’t just a buzzword

It isn’t easy to find the right digital skills in the existing talent pool. Employees often lack the data, tech or analytical skills required for a digital environment. Instead of hiring new talent helter-skelter, companies would do well to accept that upskilling/re-skilling the existing workforce is as much their responsibility as it is their employees’.

The leadership should first assess the digital fitness of the workforce to identify the strengths and gaps.

This would help the firm gain a clear understanding of the digital fluency of its workforce and create personalized learning programmes for employees. Such assessment would also help firms hire the right kind of people to fill the gaps.

It is also important to build environments such as labs, alternative workspaces and experience centres that fuel innovation and collaboration to continuously test the newly acquired digital skills and mindset.

The firms best equipped to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution are those that start by looking closely at and investing in their human capital. Without the right people strategies in place, any investment in new technologies is bound to fail.

Sudhir Singh Dungarpur is a partner and leader of digital services, PwC India.

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