Why the future of work is learning

An interview with future of work strategist Heather McGowan, on how organizations can prepare for a future of accelerated change.

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October 1, 2018
Team Engagement
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On the occasion of our upcoming Future of Work Tour, we sat down with Heather McGowan – one of the key experts of the tour – to talk about how technology and globalization are reshaping how we live and work. It quickly became clear that the issue of identity is foremost on Heather’s mind. She elaborated: “Higher education went from being a rare pursuit of creating new knowledge to a factory pipeline aimed at creating a deployable and skilled workforce. Then, from the late ’60s to early ’90s, we started on a pathway of creating a fixed identity. We asked people to choose an occupation and a future self, and to study and work hard to realize that identity. We still ask children what they want to be when they grow up. We ask university students to pick their major before they have taken their first course. Yet more than half the work we’ll be doing in future doesn’t yet exist and the other half of those work tasks may become automated.”

“When we went to the moon, we couldn't hire an experienced moonwalker. We couldn't hire anybody experienced in any of the things we were trying to do. That’s the kind of phase we are in now,” she said. If we are to move forward and create societies with high levels of productivity and well-being, we need to shift our focus from the what we do (our work tasks) to the how (our unique skills and abilities) and why (our purpose and passion). “This may seem conceptual or lofty,” she said, “but I believe we must move away from an aspirational set expertise with an identity bestowed on us by a third party towards a self-actualized identity that is internally validated.” Technology is getting more and more sophisticated, so why shouldn't we do the same? she asked.

Innovation will entail constant learning

As we move from the Third Industrial Revolution to the Fourth, the old ways won’t work for us. “We can’t, as John Hagel from Deloitte says, codify and transfer predetermined skills and existing knowledge fast enough to match the rates of change in industry,” she said. “Learning, which was once the domain only of the first third of your life, at most, is now very much a part of work. Whether we all become freelancers or employees, some of which may be a matter of public policy, we will all need to learn and adapt continuously, adding to our ever-growing portfolio of skills, and understanding how we create value within the business model. We may not all be entrepreneurs in this new future, but we all need to think entrepreneurially.”

We will also need to reimagine education to become more agile and personalized, she believes, in order to “develop a robust system of learning that’s lifelong, both inside and outside of educational institutions and companies”. It’s not going to be easy, she acknowledged, though technology can support this shift – for example by “giving greater insights into the individual, where their strengths are, and how they might want to move” – and teaching will need to become focused on ‘let me help and coach and mentor you as you learn to learn, unlearn and relearn’.

Yet, Heather argued, we have reacted to the digitization of our economy by “lunging at technology skill sets rather than leveraging our humanness in concert with technological capabilities”. “Right now we are making humans act more like robots, just as robots are becoming more like humans,” she said. “We are preparing for our own demise. In education, we are testing for things that are routine and predictable, which is exactly what most technologies can do.”

We are missing the vital point that it is difficult for advancing technologies to do uniquely human things. According to Heather, this is an advantage we need to pursue in our new future. “Uniquely human skills, such as judgment, social intelligence, empathy, creativity and communication, are hard to codify and therefore automate,” she explained. “The ability to learn, unlearn and adapt coupled with uniquely human skills will build much more resilience and propulsion than any set existing technology based skill.”

Rather than treating education “like downloading one killer application on your phone”, we need to “focus on developing in people the underlying operating system – and the expectation – that they will need to add and delete many applications in order to thrive in the future of work”. “Technology is advancing such that anything mentally routine or predictable can soon be achieved by an algorithm. But, each time a human hands off a task, whether they are doing it willingly or not, they need to reach out for another skill.”

What this means for organizations

Though Heather foresees increasing numbers of more engaged and independent contributors in the new shared and platform economies, she does not believe organizations will necessarily become obsolete. If the future of work is learning, and if you win by learning faster than your competition, we will organize into “ecosystems of learning”, she predicts. “This will likely be a blend of technology-enabled collaborations and shared workspaces that enable serendipitous conversations and collaborations,” she said. “The power of the coffee pot, water cooler, and lunch room cannot be underestimated.”

She also pointed out that the coming and going of autonomous employees and collaborators who merely “execute their piece” will not serve the greater goal of constant learning in order to adapt and thrive. “We need to capture the learning and the new knowledge created. Organizations or entities of the future will need to ask questions that unearth the organization’s principles like: Where is learning taking place? How do we capture it? What do we believe? How does the world look differently because we believe these things? What will we do to achieve our vision and mission?” And then products and services, she said, will become by-products of that learning.

According to Heather, the organization that will survive into the future, is all about culture and capacity. “Cultural alignment and learning agility should be the most important screening tools for talent in the future of work.” Success today is much less about access to capital or technology, which have become ubiquitous, than it is about harnessing human ingenuity, she believes. And, if that is the case, there will need to be a shift to perceiving the worker, whether an employee or independent contributor, as an asset to develop, rather than as a cost to contain. This is one reason she questions the current trend in which “everybody is turning every company into a platform, executing as inexpensively as they can, trying to contain the cost of humans, as we did fifty years ago”.

The intersection of technology and “humanness”

We need to be leveraging technology where technology works best, and leveraging humans where humans work best, is Heather’s belief. “We have to keep in mind that technology is a tool and we should look to measure that tool based upon its ability to help us learn, engage and create value. Right now we measure our worth by how much we process, how many hours we log, how much volume we produce. We should look for technologies that free us from processing and help us learn, adapt, engage, and create new value. You know, we made all this stuff for humans – so why would we become the victims of it?”

Of course, many of the things we currently do will be replaced by technology, she added. “But we don't live in a utopian society – not anywhere near it. There are many things that humans should be doing to care for other humans, or to care for our environment, or to create a world we want to live in, that we don't do because we don't have time, because we are processing. If we can let go of a lot of our processing, we might focus more on creating and nurturing our world.”

Heather describes herself as “a long-term optimist and a short-term pessimist”. She explained: “We are still clinging to the past and I think we are going into a bit of a dark period. We're measuring things in ways that don't make sense any more. We're trying to cling to outdated identities. Our companies are focused on profit over true value creation. But I think we will make the necessary changes – we have to make these changes. And it’s going to unleash the potential of humanity in a way that we have never seen before. It is going to be a difficult adaptation for some people, but once we get through it, I'm incredibly optimistic.”

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October 1, 2018
Team Engagement
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