Before we’ll get to the interesting part of the future of work, we’ll go through a major identity crisis

Innovation thought leader & nexxworks Founder Peter Hinssen interviews future of work strategist Heather E. McGowan.

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March 19, 2019
Team Engagement

I have always been fascinated by the future of work and learning. As technology is ushering us into the fourth industrial revolution, it’s becoming crystal clear that the way we think about talent, jobs, employees, organizations and schools is broken. Though many of us address this burning topic, few have a vision about it that is as refreshing and convincing as that of future of work strategist Heather E. McGowan. I had the pleasure of meeting her on our Future of Work Tour last year (our next edition will take place in November 2019) and she immediately became one of my favorite voices in the matter. Which is why I was thrilled that she agreed to collaborate on this interview with me.

The declining value of knowledge and experience

Not surprisingly, we started our conversation by talking about the fourth industrial evolution. As we all know, the first industrial revolution was powered by the steam engine; the second by electrification and the third - which is our current period - by computerization. “The fourth industrial revolution will automate all repetitive cognitive tasks and will allow us to merge with digital, physical, and biological systems”, explained Heather. “Now, if we can believe McKinsey, only 20% of our economy is fully digitized at this moment, so there’s only a small portion of businesses that’s already part of this 4th revolution. But one thing is certain: it will happen for all of us.”

She then went on by describing how huge this shift would be, eroding the value of knowledge as we know it: “Once our tools will be able to perform mentally routine and predictable tasks, the worth of stored expertise and experience – which are currently tremendously valued – will decline. We will have no choice but to redefine education, which is now completely focused on codifying, transferring and downloading skills, in limited time capsules. Learning lose its boundaries in time. It will be for life.”

Work to learn

I really loved how Heather described this as “we used to learn (once) in order to work but now and into the future, we must work to learn (continuously)”.

She also told me about some of her most favorite examples in innovative education: “The Khan Academy’s Khan Lab School is an intriguing experiment, involving the academy staff’s own children. Every student is organized by their independence and proficiencies instead of by the artificial classification by age. Everybody is also both a teacher and a student: they are responsible for sharing what they are better at, while helping their peers reinforces their own learning, and teaching. I love how this makes the learning the students’ responsibility.”

Work as identity

I discussed with her how we’ve been struggling with the issue of reskilling in my home country Belgium. Only recently, a major telco player announced here that they would have to lay off 1900 people, while they were planning to hire 1250 new ones. Heather replied to this with the ambitious project of AT & T: “research showed that only about half of its 250,000 employees had the necessary science, technology, engineering and math skills AT & T required for the future. So, they invested $1 billion in a reskilling project that includes online courses, collaborations with Coursera, Udacity as well as leading universities. A career center allows employees to identify and train for the kinds of jobs the company needs today and down the road. They gave everybody a talent and learning plan, and basically told them “if you want to come with us to the next business model, these are the thing you have to learn”.

Heather went on by explaining how reskilling goes beyond skills alone. She compared our mental model to an iceberg: at the top are the skills that people need to do their work, at the waterline are the enablers, which are our uniquely human skills: creativity, empathy, divergent thinking. These are the skills of the future. Below that is the agile learning mindset necessary to allow us to learn for life. Finally, at the bottom, we find identity, which tends to be the most overlooked piece of the puzzle.

Today, work has become an inherent part of our identity, according to Heather. “That’s exactly why we tend to ask “what do you do?” when we meet new people. It’s why we expect university students to pick a major before they step foot on campus. Or why we ask children: what are you going to do when you grow up? The future of work is not just about jobs; or lack thereof, or even skills. It’s about a major identity crisis: from a fixed to a more fluid one, and from a work-bound one, to one that transcends our jobs. “That’s why we have to understand the laws of identity. That’s part of the process we will need to go through if we want to ‘reskill’ the workforce.”

Comfortable with uncertainty

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about uncertainty, and how we will need to become comfortable with it in a world that is moving so fast. Yet, all of us have been trained by our parents, teachers, professors and leaders to be absolutely certain about our actions. That’s a huge gap. “We definitely need leadership that dares to admit “I don’t know, let’s find out” or “I’m not sure”, Heather added. “I consulted for a large medical hi-tech company, where they decided that those who are not comfortable with failure and ambiguity, cannot get above a certain level in the organization. That’s pretty radical, but they just did not want to end up with a leadership that was entirely dependent upon the technical skills developed about a decade or two ago. But that’s the exception. Business schools, for instance, still mostly reward convergent thinking, instead of divergent thinking which is a lot better at dealing with ambiguity and failure. That has to change.”

We really shifted from a period when leadership was complicated, to one where it has become complex. “Fifty years ago, leaders probably had most of the knowledge and experience needed to make the best decision. Today, however, knowledge and technology develop so fast, chances are slim to none that leaders have all the knowledge needed to judge a situation. The decision making process has to alter significantly. Leaders need to focus on developing people and increase their capacity within their organization. They have to become secure in not knowing and deferring to other people who have knowledge that you don’t have.”

X-shaped individuals

In Heather’s presentation at our Future of Work Tour, she talked about the X-shaped individual, a concept I really loved. The past years, we’ve been talking a lot about the T-shaped individuals, who have both depth of expertise and breadth of knowledge. In the third industrial revolution they were supposed to trump the I-shaped profiles who worked in their discipline, knew their discipline knowledge and not much else. “As the world is growing increasingly complex and tech can do more than ever, I started thinking that it is more of an X now”, Heather added. “People today work at the intersection of multiple disciplines and at the intersection of humans and technology. Sometimes technology is better at answering problems and sometimes humans are better at it. It’s the collaboration amongst them that is important. This means that the way we define ourselves will change: because if you still define yourself by your function then you are stuck in that discipline. And if only you look at solutions from your discipline, you’ll always come up with the same type of answers which are not necessarily the best.”

I wondered if this approach would make it for stressful for professionals to function in companies, without the “safe” boundaries of their own function and expertise, but Heather saw it differently: “the whole idea of a disciplinary context is actually very artificial. We chunked knowledge into these artificial silos because it was easier to transfer. Not because it ever existed that way. It would in fact be more natural once we stop breaking those into little chunks and start taking a more problem-based approach to learning: where you discover along the way and not codify and transfer existing skills.”

Exciting times for HR

We concluded the conversation with a discussion about the major challenges the above will entail for HR leaders. Most of them are still stuck in a 20th century paradigm, with very old-style tools. If I see the IT systems that HR people have to cope with, they seem completely alien to the challenges that we’ll need to face in the organizations of the future.

“If you look at the 5 biggest companies in the last 100 years, these were oil, steel, meatpacking etc. companies, right?”, concluded Heather. “They extracted value from natural assets and for that, they needed access to capital. That was how you won 50 years ago. It was all about scalable production, and access to technology. But today, the 5 biggest companies – like Apple, Amazon and Google – they win by having access to talent. Human talent has overtaken tech as the competitive advantage because the latter has become ubiquitous. Once we start realizing that, we will rethink what HR is. I believe it will become the most exciting space of a company. I, for one, really can’t wait for that to happen.

Peter Hinssen
Peter Hinssen
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March 19, 2019
Team Engagement