Why UK companies must focus on upskilling employees amid AI adoption surge  

Artificial intelligence

Has there ever been a term more widely used throughout society but with such limited understanding of what it really means? Recent research from the UK government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) found that only 13% of UK citizens can provide a full explanation of AI. And out of the 4,000 surveyed by the CDEI, most respondents still view the technology as ‘scary and futuristic’.  

Despite the widespread uncertainty amongst UK citizens, research from O’Reilly has revealed that more than a quarter (26%) of companies currently have AI projects in production and a further 43% of companies across the board are evaluating AI’s use. If that 43% move to adopt AI—as I suspect they all will to varying degrees—there will be a sudden and significant need for available talent who can put the technology to work. But the earliest adopters will have already laid claim to them. So we’ll see a growing imbalance between companies late to the party and the number of available employees who can make AI happen. And when these organisations do finally get AI projects off the ground, if their employees aren’t sure how to embrace them, the potential ROI on any investment is curtailed. It can become a vicious cycle. So it’s vital that UK businesses close the gap now between the desire to adopt AI (even if it’s still being evaluated) and employees’ technical capabilities.  

Investing in upskilling and identifying new talent pools 

The issue at the heart of this imbalance: the UK’s tech talent pool is depleted. There simply aren’t enough qualified candidates with the technical expertise required to get companies up and running with AI. And the technology is advancing so quickly that what prospects are being taught at university is already obsolete by the time they graduate—so organisations can’t just rely to hires fresh out of school to plug those technical gaps either.  

There seem to be few real solutions to closing the skills gap today. One is to invest in on-the-job training for employees and partner with a learning and development organisation that can arm them with the knowledge they need to not just learn AI but also understand how to put it to work for the company. Another is to entice students to learn specific skills your company might need in the near future while they complete their university degrees. 

If your organisation is looking to entice students to become future employees and has the means, it can be wise to engage with them well ahead of the time they make their career decisions. For example, companies like IBM, A&O, and HCL Technologies offer students the opportunity to gain niche technical skills from an early age. IBM is arguably leading the way with its recent announcement of a roadmap with more than 170 new academic and industry partnerships across more than 30 countries. The company is ensuring its future workforce by building it from the ground up. But engaging future talent doesn’t require a large initiative from a massive player; smaller and mid-size companies can work with local schools and universities to accomplish the same thing in a way that fits their scale. 

Whether you’re looking to train future employees or your current staff, it’s essential to teach skills to equip them for the now, but also skills that will be needed down the road. Because they can’t foresee what’s coming in technologies like AI if they don’t know what’s currently possible—and understanding future technologies, trends, and capabilities is vital in building a solid talent pipeline. But it’s not an easy task. It requires specialist insight that can provide a holistic view of the organisation’s needs alongside the broader trajectory of both the industry and the educational landscape. That might be a CTO who understands the big picture and can strategically deploy team members, or it might be a trusted learning and development (L&D) partner who shares insights across their organisation. In a perfect world, it’s both. But it’s essential to find the right partner. 

I’m the president of O’Reilly, which offers a learning platform that helps organisations stay ahead of the latest technologies. Two of our larger clients in the UK are a financial organisation with about 7,000 active users on our learning platform and a telecommunications company with about 20,000. Both have very high levels of engagement with resources about AI and ML—greater than the average per-user consumption on our platform. Now, these companies are big enough that they likely can hire as needed, but they know the importance of upskilling their current workforce. Not only is it cost-effective for the organisation, but it also provides growth opportunities to those who are willing to learn something new. (And growth is key for retention.) But it’s not just large organisations that are making a commitment to continuous learning. One smaller UK insurance company only has about 180 active users on the O’Reilly learning platform—but a whopping 34% of those learners have engaged with AI and ML content. That shows a tremendous dedication to upskilling in an area where hiring may not be so feasible. And it shows a serious dedication to utilising a learning partner to better prepare people for tomorrow. 

Leveraging a reputable L&D partner is evidence of an organisation’s true culture of learning, one that offers continuous skills-building and development opportunities to current employees and also the promise of learning to future talent. Understanding the requirements of today (and tomorrow) and engaging your people to develop the skills and experiences needed to tackle them isn’t just a ‘nice to have’. It’s a business imperative—a preventative strategy to ensure a lack of skills doesn’t jeopardise future growth and resilience. 

Why low-code solutions are short-term solutions 

In the past decade, low-code and no-code solutions—which promise that anyone can create simple computer programs using templates—have grown into a multibillion-pound industry that touches everything from data and business analytics to application building and automation. On the surface, investing in these solutions might seem like a convenient option to address the deficit in technical AI capabilities. 

When it comes to Al, low-code and no-code solutions can help skilled programmers be more productive, by making suggestions, detecting bugs and vulnerabilities, and writing some of the boilerplate code itself. In theory, this also means that companies don’t have to employ as many coders, as those they already have can expand their remit into AI without spending the time and effort to fully train on these technologies. Given the sniff test, low-code smells pretty attractive. 

However, low-code and no-code solutions are arguably short-term fixes to long-term problems. Your organisation’s usage of AI will eventually get more complex; it’s inevitable. And these solutions are simply too rigid and restrictive to solve more sophisticated challenges. When your programmers are unable to leverage the tools that once propped up your AI development, the future of these projects is suddenly very unsteady. Eventually your programmers will become overworked and move on to greener pastures, and you’ll be back at square one—again looking to the emerging and existing talent pool to plug the gaps.  

So don’t fall for the short game. Play long. Invest in upskilling your talent, whether that’s by connecting with prospective employees at the earlier stages of their education or by upskilling those within your organisation by providing them with training that will ensure their success. Either way, get them comfortable with the technologies and tools that are inherent to embracing AI for your organisation today, and lead them to a better understanding of what they’ll need to know tomorrow.  

We’re beyond ‘AI hype’ and inflated claims of possibility. In their place, we’re seeing a steady rollout of technological advancements and real-world use cases—and there are significant cost savings, increased productivity, and greater innovation to be realised. Those organisations that continue to invest in training and upskilling their employees to embrace the technology will reap the benefits. Those who indecisively loiter and delay too long will struggle to keep up. 

About the Author

Laura Baldwin is President at O’Reilly. Inspiring the future for more than 40 years. We share the knowledge and teach the skills people need to change their world. For more than 40 years, O’Reilly has imparted the world-shaping ideas of innovators through books, articles, conferences, and our online learning platform. 

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