Interview with Barinder Hothi, CEO, The Knowledge Academy as part of PwC’s 21st CEO Survey - January 2018
Barinder Hothi, co-founder and chief executive of The Knowledge Academy, offers some innovative thinking on two of the trickiest challenges facing CEOs these days: how to find, and retain, people with the right digital skills.
The Berkshire-based company, which delivers training solutions to companies, government agencies, multinational organisations and private individuals, uses technology to deliver training in over 200 courses each week in key markets of the UK, North America, Australian and New Zealand.
It has invested £5 million in a technology hub in Bracknell, in a bid to “bring Shoreditch to the Thames Valley”.
Hothi is clear that companies need to ensure they are attractive enough to people with advanced digital skills because “these candidates are very much in demand”. And PwC’s CEO survey cites that almost forty per cent of UK CEOs agree it is hard to attract digital talent.
One way to tackle this, Hothi suggests, could be to find ways to encourage such people to become educators in schools so that these skills are developed more broadly and, in turn, help increase the supply of digitally-enabled talent for the workforce.
She acknowledges that it is more lucrative for individuals with such skills to work in industry but believes that “if we could attract them into education then they would have a wider impact on society”.
“We have a shortage of teachers with digital skills within schools, colleges and universities, we need to make the education offering more attractive for more people. Because, surely having more of a boost in the country’s digital skills deployed in the education sector is going to mean that we can then multiply those skills much more broadly across society?”
Once the right people have been recruited, retaining them is another challenge. Here, Hothi and her husband – with whom she founded the business in 2009 – encourage digitally-focused employees to have a say in the strategy of the business. She believes that they are less likely to get that sort of opportunity in a large corporate than in an owner-managed business.
“What we found is having them involved in deciding the strategy of the business from a technology standpoint, bringing them into business-related discussions, to then build technology that solves those business challenges, actually it’s quite exciting for the right people,” says Hothi, who formerly worked at Microsoft and Xerox.
“For me, these employees are the most interesting human resources because they can help empower your business, can help you actually think about your business in a much broader sense than ‘I am just going to give you a piece of code to write’. If you bring them into the conversation earlier and you could find that they then produce something that actually creates a massive opportunity for the business”. Hothi says.
Indeed, strengthening “soft skills” alongside digital skills was the most cited area for consideration in developing a people strategy for the digital age, in PwC’s latest CEO Survey.
Alongside managing the digital workforce in the best way, Hothi highlights the need to manage data, too. In particular, data protection is rising up the CEO agenda as enterprises prepare to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a European Union regulation that will, by May 2018, require companies and organisations to make major changes to the way they collect and handle customer data.
As a consumer, Hothi is firmly in favour of increased protections around the way personal data is being used, especially with the amount of cybercrime being reported and also where personal wealth is concerned.
That view informs how she thinks of it as a CEO, too. “I am personally very pro the GDPR changes and actually that helps me shape my business opinion on it, because I can’t be two-faced about it. I can’t say as a consumer ‘I am very sensitive to this, I believe it’s a great piece of legislation, the controls over personal data are excellent, and compliance is very important’, and then as a business not deliver robust GDPR compliance for my clients.”
“We are now a large business, we have wider responsibilities, and as your business grows, you have more that you need to protect with regard to your assets. And our data is one of our most valuable assets.”
So what does this mean for the way The Knowledge Academy will manage data?
“We are going to have to be more cautious,” says Hothi. “That will mean that, over time, we may lose data that potentially we would have access to, and gain some that we ordinarily would have thought of not retaining or maintaining. So, overall we are going to be very conservative in our approach”.
To read and watch more interviews from some of the UK’s leading CEOs on the big issues featured in PwC’s 21st CEO Survey, please visit our website: pwc.co.uk/ceosurvey
South East, PwC United Kingdom