The promise of technology is so compelling, so exciting, so talked about. So, it’s expected for executives to harness as the foundation for future growth and success.

Headlines out of Adipec touted big data as the new oil. Headlines from Gitex claimed there’s no question that the promise of technology is essential for future business and societal success.

With the transformative potential of technology so tempting, can it also be blinding that business leaders may be missing a fundamental truth? Talented people still matter. So does a winning culture.

A long-held belief in business is that first-mover status is a great position to own, at least for a while.

They call it first-mover status for a reason — it doesn’t last long.

The competition will catch up. They will develop, buy, lease or rent the same or similar technology. Maybe not quite as good, fast, powerful or smart. Then again, maybe even better, faster, more powerful, smarter.

Then what are companies left with? The organisations best positioned to not only lead the way in the technology age but sustain their leadership positions are those that successfully build a culture that integrates innovation in talent and technology under one umbrella strategy. The question is: Are corporate leaders in the UAE putting as much focus on the people side of the equation as they are on the new technology race?

New research says: the answer is no.

Fitting skills and people

The Korn Ferry ‘Future of Work: The Talent Shift’ report surveyed 1,500 executives globally, including a panel from the UAE, to gain first-hand insight into looming talent challenges and what companies are doing to prepare for the workforce of the future.

The report overwhelmingly shows companies are prioritising technology over people. Here are just a few key stats from the report:

* Nearly 40 per cent of UAE executives ranked technology as the number one strategic priority, while only 8 per cent prioritise people and workforce development.

* 70 per cent say it’s easier to plan for technology and tangible assets over people.

* 55 per cent admit to being distracted by the promise of transformative technology at the expense of a people strategy.

What’s odd is that these same leaders know they are facing a serious talent crunch that could pose significant financial challenges to their futures. Some interesting findings:

* 55 per cent of executives say there is an immediate shortage of skilled talent in the UAE, with 41 per cent ranking that talent deficit as acute.

* 42 per cent believe they will have to increase salaries unsustainably to address the talent shortage.

* 40 per cent say the talent deficit will inhibit the impact of their investment in transformative technology, reduce profitability and limit growth potential.

The reality is, business leaders know advanced technology is a must-have to remain competitive in the future. They also know that people matter, to optimise the full value and impact of their massive tech investments.

The problem is: they don’t know how to plan for a workforce of the future when so little is known about what jobs they need to fill and what skills and experience their employees will need to be successful. They’ve never faced this kind of challenge, where change is taking place at such a rapid pace and there simply aren’t enough people with the right skills to do the job.

Retaining talent

While there is no one size fits all solution leaders can follow, there are clear steps companies should take today to plan. First is the simple recognition that the top leaders need to champion investment in people the same way they champion investment in new technology. History has shown that the most successful CEOs view themselves and act as chief talent officers.

That’s as true today as it’s ever been.

Another important step is to commit to building the workforce of the future from within. It costs far less to invest in creating a constant learning environment than it does to pay unsustainable salaries to replacement workers.

While there are many unknowns about specific skills we will need in the future, you can successfully upskill your current workforce. We know quite a bit about how to prepare talented, capable people to manage and adapt to change to help companies successfully manoeuvre through an ambiguous future work environment.

Lastly, companies need to objectively assess their employee culture. Recruiting and retaining highly skilled talent means companies have to be able to compete for scarce talent on more than just money. People need to believe in the organisation, feel a sense of purpose and truly believe they have the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution while developing a fulfilling career.

The future of work is not about choosing between technology and people. It’s about uniting technology and people in a new kind of marriage. It takes a long-term commitment and daily nurturing.

Expect there will be challenges and it won’t always be hugs and sweetness. Yet, know that when you find that right balance you can create an incredibly powerful and unstoppable force.

So maybe instead of CEOs acting as the chief talent officers, the future of work requires something a little different. Maybe the new role of the most successful CEOs will be chief marriage counsellor, harmonising the relationship between technology and people.

Jonathan Holmes is managing director and country chair, Korn Ferry Middle East and Africa.