This week I co-hosted a round table debate on the future of work with my client Fuze and a group of IT leaders from a variety of industries. My job was to set the scene for the conversation and to moderate what proved to be a lively and engaged session.
What fascinated me was how much time we spent talking about culture and how little time we spent talking about technology.
While there are still critical choices to be made between platforms and partners, technology is increasingly a given. Even if it doesn’t do everything we want today, we can see where it is going. But changing corporate culture remains hard. And the burden of responsibility for making culture changes, seems to be falling on those who own the technology.
This presents a challenge for the people in these roles, but also an opportunity. How do technologists make it to board level? Perhaps it is through driving strategic change like this.
A more positive vision
In setting the scene for this debate, I wanted to present a more positive vision for the future of work, since so much of the conversation recently has been dominated by stories of AI and automation. Automation is a critical issue that I’ve written about many times. But it’s not the only issue. And for those humans in the workforce over the next 20 years, I think there is an increasingly interesting role, focused on the skills that remain uniquely human — at least for a while.
Here’s what I said:
“What I’d like to start with this morning is a rather more optimistic view of the future of work than you may have heard recently. While automation may lead ultimately to fewer jobs, in the next thirty years or so, it is also likely to place a higher premium on a particular set of human skills.
The skills I’m talking about are what I call the ‘three Cs’, the abilities to curate, create and communicate. And they are skills that can be enhanced by technology. In fact, I’ll argue we’re already seeing the benefits of this enhancement.
The first of these skills is ‘curation ‘— shorthand for the ability to discover and qualify information.
Machines still can’t make a good value judgement. This is why all the major tech companies still employ huge armies of people for particular tasks, like moderating social media content, or categorising products on an ecommerce store. It’s why you still get asked to identify the road signs in a photo every now and again on Captcha questions: they’re still training the machines.
Effective curation requires rapid access to information but also the tools to collate, analyse and the opportunity to rapidly cross-check with colleagues.
The second skill is creation, the synthesis of something new. While machines can assemble products or documents — even news stories — within strict guidelines, true originality remains the purview of humans. Whether that creative process is an iterative or re-combinative process, it requires access to the raw materials, whether it is code or content, data or design files.
Communication is the ability to share what you have created with colleagues and customers. And for the foreseeable future, only humans will be able to deliver original ideas with passion and purpose.
A place we want to work
I think an environment that prizes these skills is a workplace that many of us would want to work in. But the reality is that this is less and less about place. Though face-to-face human contact remains a crucial component of business, more and more in a globalised economy, we find ourselves working remotely.
Slowly, we are coming to accept the benefits to the business of this capability. It can enable greater productivity and lower costs, but it can also bring people into the workforce who may have been excluded. Crucially, it can support a greater quality of life.
I say ‘slowly’ because despite the fact that this is at least a 20 year old conversation, it’s clear we have a long way to go on this front. Every packed rush hour train and clogged arterial road will tell you that the vast majority of workers are still very bound by geography and traditional hours.
Plus ca change…
While progress on this front is disappointing, so much has changed when you consider the impact beyond geography that technology has already had on the workforce.
Think about the speed with which you can communicate an idea, capturing thoughts as audio, video, a message or a digital memo. Think about the reach of your communications, sharing that idea with a single colleague or the entire business, instantly. Think about the richness with which we can communicate an idea, producing complex analyses or compelling presentations without recourse to specialists.
All of these things enhance the bandwidth of business.
This is what technology does. Technology is the lubricant of our lives, freeing the flow of information and breaking down barriers. And in doing so it will continue to define the future of work.”