Six views from the digital frontier
Text by Julie Sengl | Illustrations by Union Illustration Co.
As SAIT prepares to open its School for Advanced Digital Technology this fall, LINK talks digital transformation with thought leaders drawn from alumni, instructors and industry.
Let's be perfectly clear. The world’s transformation to a digital culture is not an evolutionary process. It’s a full-blown metamorphosis. It’s been in motion for some time now, gathering momentum and changing the way we work, the way we learn, the way we live.
Although people have set this behemoth superpower in motion, it’s been nature — in the form of the COVID-19 virus — that has escalated the eventual.
Still, it is people who must make sure the untold potential of digital technology works in two equally essential ways: both for us, and not against us.
Because how we incorporate technology into our jobs and our lives is more important than the technology itself. How do we use it to solve business challenges, and how do we develop the digital dexterity to apply it in a way that moves our culture forward? We’ve entered a wild new frontier, far more quickly than anticipated.
“I've never been more excited and more terrified in my life."
Those are the words of Lora Bucsis, one of six thought leaders from the SAIT community working to demystify digital transformation, create digital learning and employment opportunities, and channel what’s sure to be categorical change.
The Digital Evangelist
“Many Alberta organizations were definitely moving towards adopting digital strategies before COVID-19,” says Lora Bucsis, a self-proclaimed digital evangelist and manager of emerging markets for SAIT Corporate Training Solutions. “We’ve been on this trajectory for some time.”
But now with this global pandemic, the need to trust and embrace technology has accelerated significantly. And the decision whether or not to get on board as a way of remaining competitive has essentially been taken away overnight.
“We're already seeing that the companies willing and able to accept change — and to run with it — are fairing a lot better than those paralyzed and longing for a return to normal."
“We can definitely see that you’re either on top of this — resilient and able to pivot — or you’re getting left behind,” Bucsis says. “We’ve got a great test case right now as countless businesses have little choice but to move their workforce into a digital culture. It’s been essential to implement work-from-home measures to protect their employees and customers.”
With much of her time spent talking directly to industry, and the rest focused on strategizing within SAIT, Bucsis is in a great spot to help articulate workforce needs and expectations — and then to influence and shape the kinds of corporate training and employee development programs SAIT can offer to meet those needs.
The move into a digital culture requires a mindset characterised by optimism, adaptability, resilience, and a willingness to change, listen and look at new perspectives. “Unless you address culture and skills with your people, very few technology changes are successful,” says Bucsis.
“I see two distinct approaches within organizations right now. Some companies are basically stuck in a holding pattern, thinking they’re just going to wait this out; to wait for things to get back to business as usual. Others are completely retooling their business models, looking for ways to optimize and diversify both their supply chain and their products — to broach new markets.
“We’re already seeing that the companies willing and able to accept change — and to run with it — are faring a lot better than those paralyzed and longing for a return to normal.”
Organizations that had been on the fringes of exploring technologies like artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, data analytics or Cloud computing before the pandemic are now fast-tracking their investment and implementation. Since money already spent on related infrastructure can’t be recovered, and with proven increases in productivity, they’re unlikely to roll it all back.
“I think we’re going to see permanent change,” says Bucsis. “The nature of work has changed. There’s no going back, and companies that are nimble and have a growth mindset around digital technologies are going to fare better now and in the long run.”
Change is rampant. Extraordinary. Inescapable. And thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, right now.
“You’re going to be going digital with or without your current workforce,” says Bucsis. “And with Alberta’s current tech skills shortage, ’without’ really isn’t an option.”
Getting ahead — and sustaining that lead as prevailing business models routinely morph and shift — demands a strong yet supple foundation. Since March, when almost every aspect of our lives moved online in response to COVID-19, technologies such as artificial intelligence, digital conferencing, social media and 5G have been instrumental in keeping offices functioning, maintaining critical supply chains, enabling online shopping and curbside pick-up for groceries and essential items, and connecting us with each other.
“We need to graduate students with the skills to adapt to this rapidly evolving new reality."
And, he says, SAIT’s track record of collaboration with local industry thought leaders and community partners will help ensure the new school and its programs — under development despite the pandemic and as LINK goes to press — will meet the needs of students and employers.
“These needs will evolve constantly as technology evolves, and we will have to keep pace. There is no point graduating students who cannot run right out of the gate.”
But Bissett also looks beyond industry to help keep SAIT programs acutely relevant and leading-edge in the new economy. A laureate with the Alberta Business Hall of Fame, Bissett encourages opportunities for contributions from local businesses and community members as well.
“I see the need for various financial supports — such as contacting SAIT to create student scholarships — so that more people can gain digital skills and so the school is able to draw the best and brightest, irrespective of their ability to finance their courses.”
They see automation as a way to increase production, cut costs, improve workplace safety, and control the quality of output. Mundane, repetitive tasks that subject workers to physical strain, fatigue and distraction can be streamlined.
“Even in an economic downturn, it can be hard to find people to do mundane work,” Arkell says. “Automation removes a lot of the menial tasks people don’t want to do. It removes things that are not adding value to the product.”
It’s not about eliminating jobs. It’s about optimization. “The more automation that gets put in place the more opportunities become available,” Arkell says.
“Given the opportunity to upskill and od more meaningful work within an organization — on site or off — workers can realize their ability to add value to the company."
He sees a trend among his Fortune 1000 business customers as more and more employers commit to reskilling their workers; helping them transition from onsite, hands-on, manual labour work into technical equipment operation and oversight roles, many of which can now be performed remotely. These companies can expect an excellent return on investment. Employees who feel a sense of purpose, of value, tend to want to stick around.
“Given the opportunity to upskill and do more meaningful work within an organization — on site or off — workers can realize their ability to add value to the company.
“It helps the business. It helps the employee and it helps the industry as a whole.”
“With that passive exposure, though unintentional, you start to get a sense of what happens behind the scenes,” says Jim Szautner, Dean of the schools of Manufacturing and Automation and Transportation at SAIT. “Even though you’re apart from one another, there’s an element in this that can make you feel a little closer.”
And it’s not just with work colleagues. In these times of enforced physical distancing, people are using technology to stay connected, or even to reconnect. Long-lost friends are checking in. Virtual happy hours, dinner parties and game nights have become an actual thing. The telephone is even being used to talk again for long conversations with family and friends.
A palpable level of care and concern for one another’s physical and mental well-being has shone through during COVID-19, with technology proving an effective user-friendly platform for good intentions. No doubt — it could do more.
“Moving into a digital environment allows us to do things we weren’t able to do before,” says Szautner. “But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.”
Contact tracing — a public health process used to identify, notify and monitor everyone who has come in contact with a COVID-19 patient — is an idea that’s become a reality during this pandemic. It’s also squarely at the intersection of technology and ethics, and raises the classic question of whether the good of the many should outweigh the rights of the individual.
“In order to navigate a modern society, knowing the right questions to ask is every bit as important as having the right answers,” Szautner says.
And that’s where what educators and employers call 21st-century skills come into play: human skills like adaptability, reasoning, listening, creativity, collaboration, curiosity.
“People need to filter the vast amount of information that’s coming at them; to look at things through different lenses; to be inherently curious, but not reckless — critical.”
It’s not enough to understand critical thinking as an abstract concept. “You have to be a practitioner,” says Szautner. “You have to be able to apply skills like research, analysis and synthesizing information.”
Ethical concerns around privacy, security, honesty and data ownership have been on society’s radar from the beginning.
“It’s all a bit like the Wild West at the moment because the technology is being developed — and adopted — faster than rules governing its use,” says Szautner. “More often than not it’s incumbent on the user or the consumer to decide whether or not to participate.”
“In order to navigate a modern society, knowing the right questions to ask is every bit as important as having the right answers."
Social concerns such as digital inequality have definitely gained momentum during the pandemic. Virtually overnight, at-home studies, the ability to set up a home office — even the ability to order groceries online — became a privilege of the privileged.
“You can’t take it for granted that everybody has access to technology,” Szautner says. Even in Canada, it’s not a given that every family has a computer, or that every home is connected to high-speed internet.
“For the most part we’ve been able to come up with short-term solutions intended to meet short-term needs. Now we need to reflect and come up with solutions that are sustainable.
“As technology introduces additional complexities, we’ll need to focus more and more on what makes us human, which is our values,” says Szautner.
Getting all of this right is going to require conscious and sustained effort. For generations moving forward in this digital age, mastery will prove as indispensable to humanity — and as empowering — as technology itself.