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By Xerxes Cooper

Digital technologies have fundamentally disrupted how work gets done. As technology has presented new ways of doing business, innovative strategies have contributed to a blurring of industry boundaries. These dramatic transformations have had a profound effect on the types of workforce skills demanded by many industries.

Sixty percent of the more than 12,500 C-suite executives interviewed by the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) for the new study "Incumbents Strike Back: Insights from the Global C-Suite Study" identified people skills as one of the most important external forces that will impact their enterprise in the next two to three years.

In a subset of the study that surveyed more than 350 Canadian executives, almost 70 percent indicated that advances in both general and industry-specific technology will have a significant impact on the future demand for skills.  More than 50 percent say advances in cognitive computing and artificial intelligence will have a significant impact on the types of skills required to support their business.

While Canadian executives largely agreed that our education system – from secondary schools through to higher education – should bear some of the responsibility for developing workforce capabilities, more than half also believe that the individual is responsible for maintaining and developing their own skills.

For Canadian executives the two biggest roadblocks to addressing skills shortages were a lack of interaction or collaboration between industry and academia, and a lack of individual motivation to update and improve skills.

This lack of motivation is, in my opinion, a significant root cause of skills shortages. As an executive in a large IT services provider organization, it’s critical for my team to have the most current skills at all times.  My organization must gain new skills as quickly as technology evolves, and the success of all of us relies on each person wanting to continuously learn and improve their skills. 

However, individuals cannot do it alone. Executives and leaders need to provide the tools and opportunities for individuals to continuously update skills throughout their careers.  Advancements in sophisticated analytics and cognitive computing are facilitating individual learning.  Data-driven cognitive technologies can enable personalized education, allowing individuals to more readily take responsibility over their skills future and improve outcomes for stakeholders across the skills ecosystem.

The use of technology in addressing the skills gap is particularly important for government leaders.  Workforce development programs would be more efficient and effective if they leveraged advanced technologies to enable personalized learning.  Governments are also in a position to provide incentives for regional industry and education partners to develop programs and capabilities that enable lifelong learning.

As we look to enable and advocate for individual responsibility in skill growth, Canadian government leaders should continue to:

  • Pursue opportunities to leverage advanced technologies, such as personal learning assistants, to develop more personalized, targeted training programs and curricula that support and enable lifelong learning.
  • Actively promote and educate individuals – both employees and students – about the importance of lifelong learning and ongoing skills development.
  • Pursue partnerships and opportunities to make educational programs relevant, accessible and affordable for all individuals.
  • Lead by example, broadening our own skills, taking time for learning, and participating in mentoring relationships where we can learn from experts first-hand.


Evolving skills are the currency for future economic growth. Canada’s labour force will either help accelerate or constrain this growth. How leaders respond to this opportunity will be the difference between sustained economic prosperity or malaise. Put your bet with mine on the side of prosperity.


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