How will labor markets evolve in our 21st century digital economy? What’s the likely future of jobs, given that our increasingly smart machines are now being applied to activities requiring intelligence and cognitive capabilities that not long ago were viewed as the exclusive domain of humans? How will AI, robotics and other advanced technologies transform the very nature of work?
Over the past few years, a number of papers, reports and books have addressed these very important questions. They generally conclude that AI will have a major impact on jobs and the very nature of work. For the most part, they view AI as mostly augmenting rather than replacing human capabilities, automating the more routine parts of a job and increasing the productivity and quality of workers, so they can focus on those aspect of the job that most require human attention. Overall, few jobs will be entirely automated, but automation will likely transform the vast majority of occupations.
A recent McKinsey report noted while there will likely be enough work to maintain full employment by 2030, the transition will be very challenging, “on a scale not seen since the transition of the labor force out of agriculture in the early 1900s in the United States and Europe, and more recently in in China.” The report estimated that “up to 375 million workers, or 14 percent of the global workforce, may need to change occupations – and virtually all workers may need to adapt to work alongside machines in new ways.”
Given these predictions about the changing nature of work, what should companies do? How should firms prepare for a brave new world where we can expect major economic dislocations along with the creation of new jobs, new business models and whole new industries, and where many people will be working alongside smart machines in whole new ways?
“Underneath the understandable anxiety about the future of work lies a significant missed opportunity,” wrote John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Maggie Wooll in a new report from the Deloitte Center for the Edge, – Redefine Work: The untapped opportunity for expanding value. “That opportunity is to return to the most basic question of all: What is work? If we come up with a creative answer to that, we have the potential to create significant new value for the enterprise. And paradoxically, these gains will likely come less from all the new technology than from the human workforce you already have today.”
The Deloitte report advises companies to aggressively deploy automation technologies, not as a way of getting rid of employees or reskilling them to pursue other routine work, but with the specific intent to free them up to pursue new forms of work that will create more value for both the workers and the enterprise. They should focus their energies on redefining work at a much more fundamental level: by identifying and addressing unseen problems and opportunities.
What is work? This is actually a very hard question to answer. Work is both totally familiar and frustratingly abstract. We go to work; it’s how we spend much of our time; we work at something to which we devote mental and physical resources.
Companies create value based on the work of their employees. For many companies, the traditional path to value-creation is primarily based on cutting costs and improving efficiencies across all their operations. But it’s hard to continuously create value by just chasing operational efficiencies and cost reductions. Such companies often struggle to create real value quarter after quarter because their employees spend most of their time on routine tasks.
The report recommends that companies redefine work by shifting their employees efforts and attention from executing tightly defined, routine tasks to engaging in four key types of activities: identifying unseen problems and opportunities; developing solutions to solve problems and address opportunities; implementing such solutions; and iterating and learning (reflecting) based on the solutions’actual impact.
As companies automate their routine tasks and processes by introducing increasingly sophisticated technologies, they should be thoughtful about how to redefine work for their employees. If they just look to reduce headcount, they will likely be vulnerable to competitors who view technology and automation as a way to create more value. Instead, they should look to capture more value through a workforce that’s incented to identify and address unseen business opportunities by leveraging their unique human capabilities, including:
- Curiosity – asking questions, learning, understanding, probing, exploring. The right questions can help uncover unseen problems and opportunities.
- Imagination – extending the quest for unseen opportunities beyond current assumptions of what is known and what is possible, leading to the creation of new knowledge and solutions.
- Intuition – Drawing from practice, experience, empathy and deep contextual knowledge to generate surprising connections and insights.
- Creativity – is all about improvisation, and can be applied in any domain to help come up with solutions to problems in novel, effective, ways.
- Empathy – helps us see, understand and interpret problems from the point of view of the people we deal with, including customers and coworkers.
- Emotional intelligence – builds on the foundation of empathy to manage and direct emotions in problem-solving.
- Social intelligence – further helps an individual worker decide how best to mobilize others around addressing a problem or opportunity.
How should companies get started in their work redefinition journey? “Redefining work on a fundamental level, in a way that applies to all work, across an entire company, is no small feat. Realizing the full benefits will require major organizational transformation.” While this may sound daunting, “small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion.” The report recommends that companies do so by driving a number of significant shifts throughout the organization:
- Executing routines tasks ➔ addressing unseen problems and opportunities, – to help create new sources of values;
- Improving efficiency ➔ expanding the value delivered to customers and others, – as the primary objective of work;
- Skills ➔ capabilities, – to better cultivate and leverage human qualities.
- Individuals ➔ workgroups, – to help accelerate value creation;
- Rigid processes ➔ flexible practices, – as the key management principles;
- Engagement ➔ passion, – to give greater meaning to day-to-day work;
- Gigs ➔ guilds, – to better engage with the growing on-demand economy and contingent workers; and
- Talent acquisition and retention ➔ talent development, – to take advantage of their existing workforce.
“Fundamentally redefining work is more than a nice-to-have – it is an imperative for businesses that wish to remain competitive in the 21st century,” write the authors in conclusion. “The current trend toward more and more sophisticated automation creates the opportunity to free up capacity… Moreover, it is an opportunity to shift the future of work conversation from one based in fear and adversity (the institution versus the individual) to one centered around hope and opportunity (in which both the institution and the individual wins).”