Four Skills Tomorrow’s Innovation Workforce Will Need

The young digerati will lead innovation, but they’ll also need to develop business awareness, an entrepreneurial attitude, bottom-line focus, and ethical intelligence.

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An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
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Throughout history, new technologies have demanded step shifts in the skills that companies need. Like the First Industrial Revolution’s steam-powered factories, the Second Industrial Revolution’s mass-production tools and techniques, and the Third Industrial Revolution’s internet-based technologies, the Fourth Industrial Revolution — currently being driven by the convergence of new digital, biological, and physical technologies — is changing the nature of work as we know it. Now the challenge is to hire and develop the next generation of workers who will use artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, genetic engineering, 3D printing, virtual reality, and the like in their jobs.

The problem, strangely enough, appears to be two-sided. People at all levels complain bitterly about being either underqualified or overqualified for the jobs that companies advertise. In addition, local and regional imbalances among the kinds of people companies want and the skills available in labor pools are resulting in unfilled vacancies, slowing down the adoption of new technologies.

Before organizations can rethink how to design jobs, organize work, and compete for talent in a digital age, they must systematically identify the capabilities they need now, and over the next decade, to innovate and survive. For more than 10 years, we’ve been studying the impact of digital design and product development tools on organizations, their people, and their projects.1 We’ve found that the competencies companies need most are business-oriented rather than technical. That’s true even for brick-and-mortar companies that are trying to become more digital.

And most companies are beginning to realize that they can’t just hire all-new workforces; there aren’t enough qualified recruits, and the expense would be enormous. Instead, they need to retrain and redeploy existing employees and other members of their communities, in addition to hiring and contracting new ones to fill their needs. However, rapid technological change has rendered skill cycles shorter than ever; key competencies of even a decade ago are passé today, and most of tomorrow’s jobs remain unknown.

Waiting for the fog to clear isn’t an option. Companies must identify and develop the core skills their employees will need going forward. Our interviews, surveys, and case studies have revealed that most companies focus on refining the skills their people already possess, which doesn’t prepare existing employees or new hires for the business challenges they’ll face when using emerging technologies in their jobs.

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An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
See All Articles in This Section


1. T.J. Marion and S.K. Fixson, “The Innovation Navigator: Transforming Your Organization in the Era of Digital Design and Collaborative Culture” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018).

2. C.Y. Baldwin, “Where Do Transactions Come From? Modularity, Transactions, and the Boundaries of Firms,” Industrial and Corporate Change 17, no. 1 (February 2008): 155-195.

3. D. Gelles and N. Kitroeff, “Boeing Pilot Complained of ‘Egregious’ Issue With 737 Max in 2016,” The New York Times, Oct. 18, 2019,

4. G.M. Gavetti, R. Henderson, and S. Giorgi, “Kodak and the Digital Revolution (A),” Harvard Business School case no. 705-448 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, November 2004; rev. November 2005).

i. S. Rezvani and K. Monahan, “The Millennial Mindset: Work Styles and Aspirations of Millennials,” Deloitte Greenhouse, 2017,; and “Millennials at Work: Reshaping the Workplace,” PwC, 2011,


The research behind the ideas in this article was conducted with the support of PTC.

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