Navigating the future with lifelong learning

Flourishing in the future of work requires all of us to embrace lifelong learning. But you can’t train for jobs of the future when you don’t know what you don’t know. While most discussions on education concentrate on funding, it is just as important to motivate employees to learn and redesign work to encourage incremental change.

In general, learning budgets are spent to help each worker get better at their existing job. The pressure that so many employees feel day-to-day mean that they often don’t embrace training that isn’t immediately applicable to the role that they play. At the same time, more and more workers are instinctively feeling the need to move jobs with increasing regularity. This is true of all demographics but particularly evident in surveys such as that done by Deloitte on the “Millennial” generation.

The future of work suggests that everything that can be automated will be automated. This creates two challenges. The first is that many entry-level jobs that provided basic skills are the most at risk of automation. The second is that as fast as new roles appear old ones are rendered obsolete.

The first challenge requires entry level jobs to be thought of as a capital investment rather than simply in terms of operational efficiency. I’ve previously argued that teaching is an important part of more senior roles (see Experts make better decisions with an understudy). If future roles require junior levels as a source of talent then designing jobs that will create those skills early is simply an investment in the future.

The second challenge requires rethinking the design of jobs over time. Shortly before the latest Millennial survey, Deloitte also asked executives about their readiness for the future in a survey on the fourth industrial revolution. In summary, executives know there is change coming but acknowledge they aren’t ready.

Rethinking education and engaging everyone in evolving their own jobs is a good step towards sustainable career pathways and reducing churn as employees seek new experiences to avoid obsolescence. Historically, students were encouraged to set career goals and ambitions based around a target job. It’s become a glib, but accurate, comment that the job you want to do hasn’t been invented yet.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is often tied to these jobs of the future, which is then assumed to particularly mean learning to code. Although it would be great if everyone could program, there is little evidence of a link between coding skills and the majority of future jobs. What is important, as more jobs embrace automation, is numeracy skills through a mathematical foundation. When combined with a broad syllabus of foundational subjects, a student is as set up for the future as they can be.

In the absence of certainty about that future, an evolution of jobs rather than a single radical change is the best approach. Too many employees see their roles as fixed and fear becoming obsolete if they don’t move. These same employees seem unable on their own to make the leap to develop their skills over time. If anyone spends too long in a fixed role, all the training they receive simply reinforces the same set of skills, potentially to a dead-end. An evolving job can be aligned to a training programme of “micro credentials”.

Rather than accepting job hopping as the norm, leaders should work with their teams on evolving their existing roles in this way. Managers find their people have various attitudes to change but regardless of their comfort should not let any of them become isolated by a lack of skill development. This should even include the ecosystem of gig, casual and part time workers. Like the upfront investment in entry-level roles, the culture organisations create to develop their workforce pays back over the long term.

A good opening to the creation of sustainable careers is an ongoing investment in the streamlining of each job. Sometimes referred to as “pixelating”, each role can be broken into its constituent bits and the team members invited to consider which activities are candidates for automation in the near or more distant future. Anything that is done by rote is a likely candidate for some form of automation either now or as artificial intelligence matures. No matter what, leaders shouldn’t fall into the trap of waiting for the big ticket technology project, small investments in automation will establish the design for future systems if or when they come.

Most of all, leaders and their teams should be curious. One of the strengths of humans is our ability to cross-pollinate ideas. Something that is making progress in banking might be highly relevant in health and vice versa. The curious mind is unlikely to be obsolete.

No matter what the time pressure, the most impactful things that anyone can do are often the least time consuming. Everyone should be encouraged to make even the smallest of investments of their time each week to progress one strategic idea or advance at least one new skill no matter how trivial.

After all, the biggest long-term obstacle to being ready for the future is the lack of even minor progress over an extended period. There are no dead-end jobs, only leaders with a dead-end mindset.

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Sometimes it’s lonely being a robot

I’m committed to be a global citizen but, living in Australia, I simply can’t get to as many meetings around the world as my role would ideally involve. To deal with this, I find other ways to participate. The myriad of technologies available today, including video conferencing and telepresence robots (think an iPad sitting on top of a remote-controlled Segway), has made this much easier than any time in the past.

I’ve spent many hours, often in the middle of the night, sitting alone participating in meetings thousands of kilometres away. As I load up on caffeine, I find myself comparing the experience to that I would have in person. Overwhelmingly it is positive, I can get to more meetings, contribute more often and avoid many days away from my family. However, there are subtle differences that we often put down to our need to develop relationships in person.

Given the cost and productivity benefit of doing more meetings virtually, it is important to challenge the catch-all excuse that we need to meet in the same physical location and really understand what works, when and why. It is an oversimplification to say that we rely on body language to develop relationships, but there is no doubt that electronic participants in meetings are treated differently.

Through an accident of birth, I am part of society’s “in group”. I seldom experience the unconscious bias that many of my talented colleagues have to navigate in their day-to-day work. However, when I sit in the same room, with the same people, as a robot rather than in-person, I start to experience some of the same subtle shift in behaviour that I’ve observed some of my “out group” colleagues experience in the past.

The thing about bias is that it is based on the short-hand that our brains use. Does the other person look like me? Do they move the way I expect? Can I predict how they will talk? If someone doesn’t fit a mould, then our reptilian brain tends to group them as outsiders who shouldn’t be trusted. This is unconscious bias.

As an electronic participant in a meeting, particularly when I’m on the end of a telepresence robot, I find it fascinating to participate in a meeting and move from being part of the “in group” to being part of the “out group”. I’m still “me”, yet even people that I know well, act differently. I’m included, but not in the natural flow of the conversation. I’m consulted, but as an afterthought. I’m respected, but because of who I have been (in person) not because of who I am as a robot in that meeting.

Of all the faces around the table, I look the most different. They have to use their imaginations to convert my avatar into the person they are used to seeing in the chair. I also move differently, not the natural movement of a human but jerky electronic movements that, as a result of lag, can overshoot – sometimes with hilarious consequences. And, even on the best of video conferences, I don’t talk in quite the same way.

Researchers have found that the normal flow of conversation relies on speakers taking turns with remarkably small gaps. Moreover, these gaps differ by culture as a result of language and local norms with Japanese speakers leaving as little as 7 milliseconds compared to Danish speakers who wait an average of 469 milliseconds. The study found that English speakers average gap was 236 milliseconds.

Most people notice that other cultures seem different in conversation which may be partly attributable to the differences in conversational turn taking. It is no surprise then that when someone is participating in a conversation electronically, and the gap is measured in seconds rather than milliseconds, they seem even more different again.

An unexpected benefit of this bias against electronic participants is that it can be used as a training tool to explain what unconscious bias feels like to people who don’t normally experience it. While only a microcosm of what many have to deal with, such exposure can change your perspective.

There is work for all of us to do to unlock the power of a global community. We need to include our electronic colleagues in each and every conversation knowing that the favour you do now will benefit you next time around.

If we make the unconscious conscious we can include everyone in every meeting. Remember to pause at appropriate times, check everyone is participating and listen carefully to every idea. After all, these behaviours are just as valuable in an inclusive workplace regardless of whether we are supporting remote colleagues.

Sometimes it’s lonely being a robot!

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Information-driven work

I’ve recently spoken to several executives who have more than two thousand unread emails. They all said roughly the same thing: “If someone really wants me they’ll keep trying”. Others have said the opposite, they are keen to be easy to reach.

There must be a better way. Last month, I wrote about personal skills (see White collar productivity). However, the capability of the individual is only part of the story, with the interface between roles and activities reflecting the efficiency of the whole enterprise.

If the leadership of an organisation is struggling with productivity, the pieces of work aren’t necessarily fitting together. It might be time to introduce some inefficiency into the workplace in order to get the most from the extended leadership and management team. It is more important to have agreed protocols for interactions between roles and activities than to optimise every individual task.

A good metaphor is the introduction of containerisation through different modes of goods transport over the last couple of centuries. At face value, the idea of trains and ships using containers with so much free space seems inefficient. Yet their introduction marks the start of the cheap mass movement of goods all over the world. The key insight the industry gained was that standardisation is more important than wringing every ounce of efficiency out of each shipment.

We get to know the working style of each executive that we rely on. The best way to engage them, insert things into their diary and get their buy-in as stakeholders. In trying to be as efficient as possible, leaders and managers have tailored their individual approaches to work. This is equivalent to ships being packed individually by their captains, great for each instance but not for the whole network.

Some years ago, I wrote Information-Driven Business (Wiley 2010). While there is still much to be done, many of the goals of that book have now come to fruition in business. It is time now to talk about “information-driven work” as part of the “future of work”.

While Information-Driven Business is about the direction of business, the future of work needs to be informed by who is best positioned to take on given activities and ensure that hand-offs are seamless and free of friction.

One of the causes of friction is the lack of transparency on the distribution of the leadership load. Each activity needs to be assigned based on the skills, strategic alignment and capacity of the whole leadership and management team. This group, more than any other, bring a wide range of experiences and capabilities to work but little of that background is necessarily visible to other stakeholders.

Worse, it is very hard for anyone to see what load each executive has at any point in time. However, there is ample data available from collaboration, messaging, diaries, phone and other data sources which can be interpreted and scored so that the workload for each executive can be easily estimated and the leadership agenda adjusted accordingly.

Many executives are their own worst enemies. In an era where work is almost entirely mobile, there are few constraints to taking on more work. The result is a high degree of stress as the most capable are constantly being loaded-up with more and more to do.

The future of work will allow more leaders to shine by smoothing their workload and providing clear reporting on their progress and freeing them to spend their efforts on the creative aspects of their role.

To do this, we will see greater standardisation of day-to-day activities, metrics and information flows supporting the application of artificial intelligence to a broader range of leadership functions. For example, approvals and mundane decisions are crying-out to be automated.

We can expect to see new artificial intelligence solutions surface that detect patterns in decisions made and hint at repeatable rules applied to the more mundane activities. Like semi-autonomous cars with human drivers still in the seat, they will start by writing emails in an executive’s typical style but leaving it to the human to press “send”.

For all of these measures to be effective there will need to be some hard actions put in place. Perhaps stopping email inboxes from getting so full by redirecting certain requests when there are a given number of outstanding messages or blocking meeting invites when diaries are becoming overloaded.

We’ve already reinvented many aspects of how business is done, but the future of work is only just beginning for the leaders of tomorrow.

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White collar productivity

Have you ever faced transposing a row in a spreadsheet to a column, or perhaps tried to make a repeated change to values and wondered how to do it through menu options or functions? After wasting what feels like an eternity, you give up and do it manually one cell at a time? You’ve fallen victim to the productivity skills gap that has emerged as our offices have become more digital.

Any preparation for the future of work needs to tackle this skills gap. We spend a lot of time training blue collar workers how to do individual tasks in the safest and most and productive way. The same is not true of white collar workers who are paired with increasingly sophisticated digital tools.

There is a counterargument that such workers should have “freedom within the frame”. While there are many great examples where workforces have been given freedom to achieve an outcome within certain boundaries, individual workers have always had the specific skills they need to contribute to the overall goal. Hopefully professionals will continue to have a higher degree of freedom to achieve outcomes in a way that works for them, but that doesn’t abdicate employers and educators from providing the technical skills they need to be successful in a digital workplace.

It’s very likely that artificial intelligence will help intercept automation opportunities in the future. We’re already seeing tips pop-up based on the tasks that we’re trying to do. However, at least in the medium term, this advice is helping with tactical task management, not the big picture of applying digital tools to be a highly productive professional.

The pressure of immediate deadlines mean we often don’t do enough to find the most efficient way to automate or streamline the task at hand. We often fear wasting time looking for a digital capability that simply may not be there, leaving us with a greater loss of productivity than if we’d simply got on and done the job in the same laborious way as we’ve always done.

One of the biggest changes in our digital-enabled office is the huge variety of ways that individuals undertake the same task. While this can be empowering for some workers, it has created an even greater difference in productivity between the best and the worst performing white collar workers than ever before.

In years gone by there were limited ways to perform most administration in our professional lives. Today, the options have exploded and there is almost no standard. Email etiquette is in flux, with some people having thousands of unread email and no chance of ever catching-up. Others, however, seem to be able to keep on top of their workload with a few clever shortcuts.

My colleagues at Deloitte argue that three factors contribute to an executive’s success: time, talent and relationships. As our world becomes more electronic, we are becoming slaves to our electronic devices. It is amazing how many executives fail to take control of their diaries (time), productively use available technology to manage their teams (talent) or leverage digital channels to streamline their peer interactions (relationships).

An investment in office tools, and how they’re applied, can make a huge difference. Sadly, techniques for using software such as Microsoft Outlook are seldom taught and are often regarded as too trivial for senior professional. To illustrate, most of us have tools that include the capability to block-out time to protect time from distraction, alerts for meetings added in the distant future that are time wasters and the ability to delegate tasks.

Deciding how much and when to streamline or even automate a task shouldn’t be a hard one. The candidate activity might be the spreadsheet you produce twice a year, a regular email to which you just reply “approved” or a document that requires input from many team members. Professionals don’t need to know about every feature or capability in the tools they use, rather they should have an understanding of what is likely to be possible and access to help to learn how to find those features when needed.

The tendency is under-invest in digital office skills. To make the most of the future of work, we should take this on in small, manageable, chunks. A simple goal is to ensure that one skill is learnt by each staff member each week to add to their personal productivity.

There is the potential to quickly eliminate thousands of unread emails from inboxes, reduce the stress of information overload and save wasted effort by senior staff on menial activities. Business will see a measurable productivity benefit after just a few months.

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Balance of power

The digital economy is transforming every corner of our lives. The changes in the businesses we interact with and the way many of us are employed mean subtle but important shifts in power. Patronage, social license and convention that have served prior generations well no longer stand-up in the brave new world we are now navigating.

It was Robyn Morgan who said that “information is power” when arguing for a rebalancing of power between the genders. She went on to argue “The secreting or hoarding of knowledge or information may be an act of tyranny camouflaged as humility”. Information and power is not just an issue between genders but also between the parties involved in employment, marketing, sales and services.

Last month I talked about the importance of trust enabled through new channels (see Trust in the digital economy). Although the new platforms that are connecting service and product providers with new customers are brokering trust, they are not seeking to balance power. Whether it is ride sharing, brokering odd jobs or acting as a product marketplace, the information and power is being centralised by the platform owner.

I’ve also written previously about the creation of new jobs in the digital economy (see More but not better jobs). While there are more jobs being created than destroyed, many of the new jobs are casual or “gig” piecework. Guy Standing, a British economist, coined the term “precariat” (combining “precarious” with “proletariat”) to describe an emerging working poor who are relying on insecure work through these platforms.

We are still in the first generation of the digital economy. It is a generally accepted phenomenon that platform businesses are “winner take all”. Although this is seldom entirely true, it has been the case that social media, ride sharing and television streaming have been dominated by a small number of businesses.

The reason that platform businesses tend to dominate is the information they accumulate. The owner of the information has disproportionate power, including the ability to set prices for the providers (often the workers) and keep competition out who lack the same market information. While power often begets power, it also encourages those who lack power to find a way to overthrow perceived inequality.

One of the models that has the potential to shake-up existing platforms is the emergence of cooperative platforms where the providers group together to also own the platform.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, worker and agricultural cooperatives grew around the world in response to power imbalances or vacuums where business either displayed unfair practices or were unprepared to support a sector.

We are starting to see cooperatives rise again in response to concerns about the practices of commercial platforms by workers in the gig economy. Recent examples include cooperatives of taxi drivers (e.g., Denver’s Green Taxi Cooperative), photographers (e.g., Stocksy United) and home services (e.g., Up & Go).

Trade unions have found it particularly difficult to adapt to the gig economy and support those workers dependent on new platforms. A significant part of the problem is that unions traditionally divvy up the market by particular skills, qualifications or sectors. This model worked when education preceded a lifelong career. The economy, through changes wrought by technology, is moving to one of constant change throughout careers requiring ongoing education and a wide range of different specialisations throughout most people’s lives.

Any model representing these workers, who are becoming more important every year, will need to recognise the individual rather than the particular skill they exhibit at a point in time. Perhaps the union movement of the future will become a platform enabling those seeking work to combine with those providing education and employers needing particular skills.

Regardless of how skills are gained, the idea of “set and forget” education for life doesn’t fit with the new era of employment. Education needs to find a new continuous learning revenue model. Like other businesses disrupted by digital trends, the power held by educational institutions was, in large part, due to a monopoly on information and knowledge which has now been democratised (see Universities disrupted but not displaced).

In a world where workers are constantly adjusting their skill based on continuous education, a better approach might be to have the worker organisations combine with employers to organise and pay for the education. Perhaps the platforms of the future will facilitate and fund the constant development of skills rather than rely on the tactical exploitation of skills earned elsewhere.

The information and power has moved from old structures to new in our day-to-day work. As a result, completely new categories of work have been created. The changes, though, in the power balance are far from being sorted through. History tells us they will be, the question is whether it will be solutions from the industrial revolution reinvented or something entirely new.

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Trust in the digital economy

As the year wraps-up, it is the season when we feel good will towards all. I am reminded that our economy works because of the trust that we each have in each other. The information economy has enabled us to interact with a wider range of parties than ever before and, more importantly, develop a level of trust in those relationships.

In the past, companies offered a huge range of services because it was their brand that provided trust. Today, specialisation is the name of the game with the internet offering research and reviews for potential customers. New platforms are allowing individuals to directly engage others for car rides, accommodation and ad-hoc tasks. These are only possible because identity and assurance of quality are offered through the power of the crowd.

Arguably, our individual reputation is more important today than ever before. It is harder for an unscrupulous business operator to move to a new town and have their history disappear. Even without a perfect identity system, companies and individuals are part of social networks and subject to reviews online which are hard to purge.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t bad operators taking naïve consumers for a ride. However, it is arguably harder than ever to maintain a false façade in the era of social media. Fake identities, where there are a substantial number of social connections, tend to fall apart quickly. See Login with social media.

When people trust each other, there is the ability to navigate inevitable disagreements. Contracts describe the business relationship between two parties. From time-to-time, interpretation of a contract is open to question and we use courts to find a solution. The investment required in a legal process, both in cost and time, means that it is usually a last resort.

At the same time as technology is providing a means of better identifying parties who want to do business, and providing a basis for trust, an alternative where no-one needs to trust anyone is emerging. So-called “trust no-one” business using blockchain is exciting entrepreneurs and innovators the world over. Of particular interest are forms of smart contracts which are being used by cryptocurrencies to provide rules-based settlement of agreements.

Smart contracts use code to define every rule and exclude the opportunity to escalate to a third party given that the funds are locked through cryptography. The great thing about computer code is that it removes ambiguity. The trouble with computer code is that there is always the opportunity for a bug to emerge and, with no room for human intervention, there is little ability to escalate to solve the problem.

We’ve seen this in action through an issue of Ether, one of the cryptocurrencies: ‘$300m in cryptocurrency’ accidentally lost forever due to bug. In this case the development community had to consider whether to wind everything back, effectively reversing time. Given the small number of transactions actually happening using smart contracts and cryptocurrencies, these issues represent a material proportion of the activity.

Perhaps the choice is like a safe. Do we lock our assets away in such a way that only we hold the key, with there is no recourse if something happens to that key, or are we willing to trust at least a few such as government or financial institutions? Stories abound of these lost keys and the heartbreak that follows (for example, see Don’t tell my wife).

Although it seems initially appealing to hand over the role of courts, banks and other institutions to technology, the downside of removing human judgement and failsafe measures is larger than the overhead that they add to our economy. Ultimately, though, doing away with trust means that all business is semi-anonymous and becomes transactional. Without human interaction, the temptation to try and cheat grows, probably at least as fast as the smart contract technology closes each loophole and corrects each bug.

It is ironic that with all the concern over trust in currency and contracts, our major business tool remains email. Our email largely relies on trust given that few verify the identity of the email sender. This is the ultimate proof that trust works in business given identity could be (and really should be) easily solved by the addition of digital signatures.

Rather than give up on millennia of business enabled through trust, we should embrace the Russian proverb (made famous by Ronald Reagan): “trust, but verify”. By the smart use of social media, identity and exciting business platforms we can enable an enormous volume of business to be done with little overhead. The exceptions should then be escalated to institutions such as courts run by humans not computer code.

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Rethinking failure

Imagine an organisation with ten job levels (ranked from entry to CEO). In the first year, there are 512 people at the lowest level who are all assigned to projects, half of which succeed and the other half fail in the first 18 months. The successful 256 are promoted to the next level and again assigned to projects with a 50/50 chance of success. The 128 whose projects succeed are again promoted. Following this pattern, by the ninth promotion, there are just two people at this level from the original group of 512. From these two, a final pair of projects and, assuming 18 months per projects, after 15 years one successful candidate is ready to be CEO!

Obviously, this mythical example is simplistic and no leader is chosen exclusively this way. But, there is no doubt that the delivery heroes who have a faultless history of success are at the front of the queue.

With so many rewards being given to those who can demonstrate a long sequence of successes, people have learned to make sure there are no black marks of failure against their name. Yet, we know that learning through a mixture of success and failure is the best way of giving future leaders the tools they need to deal with their most challenging roles.

Everyone wants to be recognised as being innovative and most people talk about the importance of failure in the innovation process. Learning, whether individual or organisational, comes from trial and error, it is an intrinsic part of being human. That’s why we do things over and over again at school until the sum of the failures sets us up for success.

Knowing that so many organisations are talking about a culture of failing quickly, it is always interesting to ask a room of professionals if they have ever been rewarded for failing. Almost no hands ever go up in the air. Rewards and actions go together and leads to the avoidance of assignments that risk failure. The downside of organisations being motivated in this way include inflated budgets, limited ambition and a lack of hard measures of success.

The impact on budgets comes from leaders choosing to pad their plans to make sure they under promise and over deliver. Without the tension of budget pressure, inevitably costs are higher than they need to be. That’s fine if what you’re doing is mission critical, such as building a spacecraft or life support system, but otherwise it doesn’t make good economic sense.

Similarly, in an environment that punishes failure, an ambitious scope is to be avoided at all costs. Certainly, it would be career limiting to take on a “moonshot”. Most organisations should avoid too many moonshots, but you want at least some of your teams aiming to reach for the stars and at least get to the Moon.

Finally, the best way to avoid missing a target is to make it soft rather than something measurable. The great thing about soft measures is that they are usually open to reinterpretation after the event. I believe that anything can be measured if you try hard enough. But, if you will be punished for these measures it isn’t surprising many choose to avoid any documented commitments.

The most ambitious of targets are best thought of as an experiment. By definition, experiments define a default hypothesis and an alternative. Failing to prove the alternative is an outcome in its own right. By not celebrating those projects (or experiments) that fail to prove the alternative, organisations keep on trialling the same idea. Institutional memory should not be the only way to recall that something has been tried before.

Search for “startup failure” online and you’ll see a myriad of events that bring speakers together to share what went wrong. Entrepreneurs are learning that there is often more to learn from the mistakes of others than from those that have been a success.

Search for “project failure” on any large enterprise intranet and you’ll be very unlikely to hear the confessions and learnings from any of the organisation’s leading executives. Why is it that entrepreneurs know the importance of learning from past mistakes while executives don’t see this as a priority?

A healthy organisation will seek a spread of risk and return across their portfolio of activities and projects. The greater the risk, the higher the return that should be expected.

For projects, such as technology implementation or engineering, a failure can range from missed deadlines to complete abandonment of the scope. When it comes to taking risk on implementation timeframes, the rate of overrun, and the impact of the overruns, should be less than the total savings through increasing the risk. While the benefit of risking a more aggressive scope should be greater than the loss due to the rework required to wind back to a more modest set of objectives.

Businesses that only ever punish failure encourage everyone to leave something in reserve, while the best organisations encourage everyone to stretch themselves and their teams with a transparent approach to taking appropriate risks. Business transformation is more than the sum of its parts and requires the right combination of ambition combined with continuous learning.

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