HR Indaba Africa 2019: Cognizant's Michael Cook to deliver riveting keynote address

Michael will share practical insights and research findings from the Center for the Future of Work.

Africa’s biggest HR gathering will feature Michael Cook, senior manager at Cognizant Technology Solutions’ Center for the Future of Work. With a background in customer experience, HR, cybersecurity and advisory services, Michael was a global digital analyst before joining the company he describes as one of the best-kept secrets in the IT space.

With close to 285 000 employees, more than $16 billion (approx. R242 billion) revenue for the 2018 financial year and market capitalisation of about $33.93 billion (approx. R500 billion), Cognizant is one of the world's leading professional services companies, offering IT services, including digital, technology, consulting, and operations services. At the moment, a significant focus of the business is on digital, artificial intelligence and robotic integration. 

That’s where Michael’s work in the Centre for the Future of Work comes into play.

“AI and robotics is going to be one of the major growth areas of our business so our work at the Centre for the Future of Work is primarily about understanding what impact those kinds of technologies are going to have on the future of business, processes and, ultimately, people,” says Michael.

Michael is in a team of seven former analysts who spend almost all of their time researching the future of work which they believe, contrary to what alarmists predict, is not going to be a jobs apocalypse.  

“We do see job loss but only about 12 percent of jobs will be directly displaced by technology. Most jobs are going to remain but will become more impactful as mundane work is automated, freeing up time for employees to do the work that matters,” says Michael.

The three Cs

In 2016 the Center for the Future of Work was pivotal in driving a study that was the basis of the book, What to do when Machines do Everything. Here they laid out the foundation of the real impact of digital technologies on the workforce. A key finding was that there will be a 13 percent increase in job creation in the face of these new technologies.

However, what wasn’t covered in the book was what these jobs will be. Therefore, in 2017, the Center for the Future of Work ran a study and subsequently published a report titled, 21 Jobs of the Future and followed this up at the back end of 2018 with 21 More Jobs of the Future.

“So we now have 42 jobs. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” says Michael, adding that there are going to be far more new jobs than that in the future. What they have learned, however, is that all jobs of the future will fall into three categories – coaching caring and connecting.”

Coaching is going to be critical because people will need to be coached on how to use new technology, while the technology itself will have to be ‘coached’ by people responsible for creating, maintaining and protecting cutting-edge computing environments.

Jobs related to caring are those arising from the need to adapt to an evolving life experience enabled by technology. It has been widely reported, for instance, that the first people to live to 150 have already been born and this is going to strain healthcare systems the world over and jobs will emerge to address that need.

“The flip side is that, as we have greater abundance, society moves up Maslow's hierarchy of needs and wider communities become more important.  This is evidenced by the extent to which social justice has taken over the UK and the US.”

Finally, connecting refers to how man and machine are going to work together. These are the jobs that arise from platforms like Uber and Task Rabbit, which connect people who need micro-services with those who can provide them.

HR at the centre of it all

Michael says that at the centre of all of this is HR professionals who are going to have to train people and ensure they are engaged and effective in this new world.   However, he is alarmed by the apparent lack of urgency with which corporates are elevating the role of the function to assist in preparing for the beckoning disruption. He believes there are still far too many organisations that have barely looked at the skills they will need in ten years time, let alone 20 or 30 years from now.

“We are seeing too many companies where HR still doesn’t have a strong voice at board level. Traditionally, HR has been a mechanism to protect organisations from employees. But that can’t go on. If you don’t see people as a critical element of the business, you are essentially burying your head in the sand,” says Michael, adding that the skills needed by 2025 are not the same skills that will be needed 10 years after that. 

That is why organisations need to look at behavioural characteristics and ability to adapt to change as the most important indicator of high-potential talent. 

“Because, ultimately, if they are not able to change they will become dinosaurs. And we all know what happens to dinosaurs.”

Among the many lessons that Michael will be sharing in his keynote address is that organisations have to start prototyping business cases within the business to explore future scenarios and how to adapt to them. For that, they need to explore different people strategies. More than anything, it is going require that business abandon out-dated notions organisational design and leadership.

Says Michael, “There is still too much of a hierarchical approach and structure of communication and engagement. I was in South Africa, speaking to at CFO at one of the big four banks and had to meet him at a far-away office on the top floor, guarded by a team of PA’s. That’s far too archaic for me.  At Google, the CEO sits with the AI development team because that’s where the future of the business is headed. So, instead of waiting two weeks to arrange an appointment with him, those employees engage with him on a daily basis and he is able to keep his finger on the pulse of the operations of the business and steer strategy accordingly.”