Martin  Leuw
Martin Leuw Non-Executive Chairman
4 Apr 2024

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Running a healthcare dotcom before the bubble burst, I learnt some painful lessons about how the promise of new technology could speed ahead of customers’ willingness to work out how to use it.

Still, I remain an optimist about the impact of technology, as are the businesses I am involved with now. At Ground Control (and several other companies I have invested in or chair) we have been busily investing in upgrades to the software that we use. We make sure that the return on investment on paper is clear, and that everyone is signed up to make it work. Then we, like many, close our eyes and cross our fingers as nothing ever goes strictly to plan.

Changing software systems to improve your efficiency and effectiveness is really all about people. They have to be involved, willing and able to change the way they work. Every organisation has individuals who will not fully engage and as result tensions can build up quickly. By engage, I mean the day-to-day effort of learning how to use the tools, as well as overcoming any resistance to where technology may change the requirements of the job, perhaps through automation.

Tensions can also arise between the safety net of control that the IT team needs to protect the business against the wishes of operational teams to experiment with new tools.

I recently interviewed a variety of people of different generations in the businesses I am involved in to see for myself how we are adopting technology differently and learning (or not) key business skills from each other. While anecdotal, the insight was extremely helpful.

Gen X (born between c1965 to c1980) and the tail end of the Baby Boomers before them, still represent a significant proportion of today’s workforce and in particular our leadership teams. I include myself in this group. We left school pre-internet and our technology skills have the widest range, from good to awful. Once positions of seniority have been reached, not everyone makes the effort to carry on learning to use new technology and, for some, pride gets in the way. What is even worse is that this group often impose outdated ways of working on their colleagues because they are protective about the software they use to run the companies they lead.

The approach they choose to adopt regarding new technology can set the tone of an organisation, either positively or negatively.

Many Millennials (28 to 45-year-olds) are also now in senior management and leadership roles. They are the first generation to grow up with the internet, social media and “always on” accessibility. They are typically comfortable with intuitive technology, multitasking and automation and prefer to type rather than write (unlike their predecessors).

They too, however, seem to be more “siloed” than I expected owing in part to the accelerated pace of change. I found examples where they were not fully familiar with some of the productivity tools and apps available despite their usual willingness to experiment with AI prompts.

With Gen Z (mid-teens to late 20s) many had smartphones at school. They are probably the most intuitive with new technology and most comfortable with voice activation rather than typing. There is considerable overlap with Millennials in their attitude to technology at work but they seem more able to work out how to use new tools, adapt more easily and experiment with a wide range of AI tools for different purposes. They want to be actively involved in the implementation of new ways of working using technology, rather than remain passive consumers. Doing so will give you advocates and constructive critics, providing valuable feedback when things are not right or could be improved further.

My biggest takeaway from these conversations was something I was not expecting: people, irrespective of age, are not actively sharing their own “productivity hacks” with colleagues. It is not that they mean not to, but it simply has not crossed their minds to do so.

That is an important lesson about culture. The informal learning that companies relied on before the pandemic — those “water-cooler” chats — are not happening as much. It means that companies have to provide more structured learning, or at least dedicated time to chat about work hacks, to compensate. I know that other businesses have spotted this trend as Ground Control is not alone in running an in-house academy, lunch-and-learn sessions, mentoring and reverse mentoring schemes.

It is also important to recognise the way different people and, particularly, generations respond to technological change in the workplace. While there is excitement about shiny new things, it is blended with a natural fear of the unknown and the insecurity of machines taking on more of our work. The difference with this industrial revolution is the pace of change. The tide will not be held back.

It will not be long before the first of the Alpha generation (aged 14 and below) will be joining us at work. The workplace they inhabit will look very different from what we see now. There will be fewer screens but more AI, mobile and voice activation. Talent managers will focus on skills, not jobs. It means we need to get better at embracing intergenerational digital diversity and tackle the growing digital divide. And this change must start at the top of organisations, as much as organically from below.

The chancellor’s spring budget should have given more emphasis to the provision of apprenticeships for the over-55s. Research shows that more than five million older workers in the UK are thinking of quitting their jobs early and more than 500,000 say that they cannot keep up with the skills needed. This is a waste and can be avoided.

The prize is significant. AI may be grabbing the headlines, but many businesses still have to get the basics right when it comes to investing in IT. When you have access to good information, leaders can make the right decisions. Too often I see patchy information being used to make poor decisions. And that damages all our prospects.


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