“The best way to predict the future is to create it” (Anonymous).
The speed at which change is happening is faster than ever. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) have become the status quo. A shift in demographics within the labor market, rapid urbanization in developing countries, economic power shifts and the push for globalization are changing the fundamental nature of the way we work. The concept commonly referred to as the “future of work” is quickly becoming a phenomenon in a state of swirl, filled with information and misinformation.
The picture we’ve painted is bleak, filled with massive unemployment in a world run by robots. Fact or fiction, talent is globally hearing and seeing this information. According to research by PWC, 37% of employees are worried about the future of their jobs as a result of automation and robotics. When faced with fear, humans instinctively respond with one of three common responses: freeze, flee or fight. None of these responses creates positive results for productivity or performance.
Still, a beautiful and compelling fact about the future is that it is not yet written. Although there is no way of knowing exactly how many workers automation will displace, we know that talent will be impacted as our jobs and the way we work change. It’s our responsibility as learning and development (L&D) practitioners and leaders to prepare talent to navigate the waters of ambiguity.
What Can We Do?
Amid uncertainty, we can focus on what we do know: Automation is a global force that is transforming economies and the workforce — and more importantly, this type of global change is not new.
We know that technology has been changing for at least eight centuries, from the 12th century, when the horse collar became universal, to the 19th-century Industrial Revolution. Roughly once each generation, we experience a panic that technology is destroying jobs. Looking back at the agricultural and manufacturing industrial revolutions, we know there was a decline in those industries as a result of technological changes. The economy as a whole, however, continued to grow. If history is any indicator, the changes we’re experiencing now will also grow our economy.
New technology often destroys existing jobs, but technology also creates new jobs. When the automobile was built in the early 20th century, it destroyed the horse and carriage industry; many jobs were lost, but it also created new jobs through new sectors like automobile manufacturing plants, gas stations and auto repair shops and through an expanded tourism industry. Indirectly, automobiles addressed other latent needs, creating the possibility of living further from work and even creating new towns.
We know that in the future, humans will spend less time on repetitive functions like physical activities (e.g. stocking shelves) and collecting and processing data, areas in which machines already exceed human performance. Therefore, we need to focus on the skills that separate artificial intelligence (AI) from our own, the skills that make us human: our higher-order cognitive skills.
Higher-order cognitive skills give us the ability to connect with other people through empathy and interpersonal skills. They give us the ability to solve complex problems and move beyond the linear thought that robots are capable of. Our creativity and originality, our emotion and logic, are the skills of the future.
How Do We Prepare Talent?
With the needs of our learners evolving, the way we approach learning and development (L&D) also needs to evolve. Today, we encourage on-the-job learning, teach knowledge and produce job-related content. We are known as providers of learning. In the future, rather than holding L&D accountable for learning, we need to empower and enable our learners to take control of their future. We can achieve this goal by creating L&D opportunities for learners to develop skills while teaching them how to learn effectively and efficiently by building learning habits.
Effective Learning Habits
The concept of being a learner has shifted. No more is the process “learn, do, retire.” To be agile and adaptable, employees need to “learn, do, unlearn — learn, do, rest — learn, do, unlearn, and repeat.” This is the cycle of a lifelong learner.
Chart Source and Design: Keith Keating & Greg Cira Designs
Modern careers are like nonstop conveyor belts — you need to keep moving and learning, no matter the stage of your career. Contentedness is a mindset that puts us at risk. Consider how quickly industry, business and technology evolve. Instilling lifelong learning ensures that our talent remains agile, adaptable and ready to fill the next organizational gap.
Context is critical to the learning experience. It shapes the process and helps learners construct meaning based on their own experiences. As a result, context brings learning as close as possible to the work environment, creating stronger performance support. Context makes learning relevant and meaningful.
We need to help employees recognize the importance of reflecting on their learning experiences. Learning is more about engagement and discussion than consuming content. We need to build in reflection exercises and offer ways to apply learning in context, providing opportunities to develop learning habits specific to each employee’s work environment.
Making decisions based on information is increasingly a primary part of many roles. The average daily consumption of media is an estimated 10.5 hours per day in North America (four hours more than the global average). 2012 CEB (now Gartner) research reportedly found that given the amount of information overload learners faced, fewer than 40% could effectively analyze information. The result is poor performance and higher organizational risk.
With all of the information and content that exists, we often ask ourselves a prophetic question: How can we build training materials rapidly enough to catch up with the pace of organizational change? The answer is that we cannot, and we should not. A core component of our evolved role consists of being content curators rather than content creators. With the abundance of content that is already available, content curation enables easy access to the right information. Transforming it into a usable format helps learners analyze information and build effective learning habits.
A Call to Action
As L&D professionals, we must evolve from being learning providers to learning enablers. Doing so will help us help our employees help themselves to prepare for the future.
No one should be living in fear for the future of his or her job. There is work for people today, and there will be work for people tomorrow, even in an automated future. Rather than cultivating fear and prescribing to the idea of “humans versus machines,” we should help our talent embrace the concept of humans and machines — the future blended workforce.