Robert Hoyle Brown is Vice President, Center for the Future of Work, a global think tank with a charter from Cognizant Technology Solutions to examine how work is changing and will change, in response to the emergence of the Age of Algorithms, Automation, and AI. As a futurist, he has focused extensively on the topics of robotics, automation, privacy and augmented reality and their impact on business processes.
In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Robert, who will be speaking at People Matters TechHR Singapore 2020, shares his thoughts on the future of work and skills.
How do you envision the workplace of the future will look like? What does the optimal combination of humans and machines look like in the workforce of the future?
Though the future of work will always be in the future, the future of YOUR work has never been closer. The rise of robots, machine intelligence, distributed ledgers, quantum physics, “gig” labor, the unexaggerated death of privacy, a world eaten alive by software — all these trends point to a new world that’s shaping up quite differently from anything we’ve ever seen, or worked in, before.
Key evolutions we see include the shift from hierarchies in business to “wire-archies”.
Millennials especially prefer to work in wirearchies: dynamic networks of connected nodes, free of predefined priorities or ranks. Another example applies to the aesthetics of what we literally wear to work: take the acceleration of the shift from the suit to the hoodie. Creative, mold-breaking leaders don’t wrap themselves in the conformity of an idea or a drape. The suit no longer fits these disruptive times – software (and the hoodie of software engineers) rules the business world, and the suit is collateral damage.
These are just a couple of ideas – among many, many others – that we see as emerging touchstones to a future of work. It’s also going to require the optimal combination of humans and machines -- whether in our schools, offices or homes – and the human traits of coaching, connecting and caring will endure forever. AI is great at “the science of the job” (like data analytics and pattern recognition), but people remain great at “the art of the job” (like visual cues, emotion/empathy, judgment, ethics, social context and the ability to answer the question, “What’s the right thing to do?”).
So in the age of algorithms, automation and AI, the question that still looms largest is: Who will ensure that tomorrow’s algorithms are built, extended and maintained with human interests at the fore – for the good of all and with the ability to help them jump the gap and leapfrog into the future of work?
How do today’s jobs need to reinvent in order to stay relevant for the future workplace?
There is a pervasive belief that many of today’s jobs will be “automated away” in the future of work. But really, the question to ask is “What TASK of my job will be automated?” Every job that anybody does today can be broken down into constituent tasks – many of which might benefit from automation. Case in point: think about all the tasks a lawyer has to do like prepare and draft legal documents (wills, patents, etc.) or gather (increasingly data-derived) evidence during discovery. This is in addition to the “core mission” of advising clients on the law. That’s why we predict that 75% of work will be augmented by intelligent machines, not obliterated.
The efficient divvying of work between humans and machines will happen at the task level. Wave goodbye to repetitive tasks that no one wants to do (think: form-filling) and welcome with open arms the kind of work that deserves that prime spot on our LinkedIn page: brainstorming, complex problem-solving, ideation.
What are going to be some of the biggest impacts of big data and emerging technologies as far as disrupting the talent dynamics in organizations is concerned?
Businesses can use workforce intelligence to transform how work gets done and support new models of work. For example, by uncovering “the natural network” to facilitate agile collaboration. Data-driven insights can break down restrictive structures that dampen the innovation process by helping businesses understand how work actually happens. With evidence-based insights, businesses can bypass the formal lines inscribed in the org chart to bring the right people together at speed (this is our idea of movement from hierarchies to “wire-archies”).
Businesses will also need to use digital technologies to personalize the employee experience to attract – and retain – top talent.
Workers are accustomed to digital experiences that are tailored to the individual: personalized recommendations, payment with a fingerprint, automatic updates for the traffic on the commute. Meanwhile, talent management processes are mired in clunky, manual and frustrating practices. Using workforce intelligence, businesses can usher in new levels of employee experience that rival customer experiences.
How can organizations reinvent their talent dynamics as they seek growth and success in an era of change and digital transformation?
A couple of key trends we see are, firstly, to embrace fluidity; skills regeneration is the new norm. Yes, workers are changing jobs more than ever. Sure, millennials have no interest in settling down. Rather than fight it, however, businesses should embrace this fluidity to empower the modern workforce. Skills regeneration is foundational for continuous innovation. Real-time skills profiles, developed through employee data, can enable agile workforce planning and make way for authentic, personalized learning programs.
Secondly, it’s incumbent upon organizations to use new technologies that help workers enhance new thresholds of performance, productivity, and well-being. The human workforce has distinct needs, so businesses can’t treat humans like machines. Workforce intelligence will reveal unique attitudes toward work and inform work structures that support the individual. This, in turn, will lead to better employee engagement, well-being and, ultimately, productivity.
What talent challenges do you foresee in the workplace of the future?
Beware the “big brother burden.” The personal data debate is growing with every data breach news story, every GDPR email and every full-screen cookie warning. The modern workforce is increasingly aware of its data and how it can be used. Ensure there are open lines of communication and a clear mutual understanding of what data is being collected and why. Start with an advocates’ network – a group of people from across the business who are kept up-to-date and are available to chat formally or informally with employees. Make sure all communication abides by the new T&Cs – transparency and clarity.
Additionally, the rise of automation and AI is set to make the traditional linear model of education-employment-career inadequate. As these trends invade our working lives, many individuals will need to adapt to changing work tasks or switch to new occupations entirely and point themselves in multiple career directions.
These days, skills have become like mobile apps that need frequent upgrades, making multiple careers (rather than just jobs) the norm for a 60-year span of labor.
The new world of work demands that our roles be continually augmented. To get the most out of their careers, people are now exploring new ways to broaden their horizons by increasingly making use of sabbaticals, secondments and educational time-outs. Today’s career path options seem so endless that one day even our grandchildren will laugh at the idea of spending their entire work life in just one career.
How do organizations stay on top of these technological trends as work and automation continue to evolve?
The future of work offers a galvanizing prism through which to view strategy. Inside nearly all companies, by training a microscope on how we work now, we can try to figure out how we’re going to work when this day is done. Change tasks and work processes with disruptive new technologies, and you must also change the business process (which, by extension allows you to change the operating model). That, in turn, drives changes to business strategy. In the Age of Automation, Algorithms and AI, companies like LinkedIn must play a crucial role by matching needed skills to the availability of new workers that are out there, building a critical bridge to get from “here” to “there”.
Our belief is that mixing the futuristic with the plausible helps showcase the important work that humans will continue to do to in the future of work.
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