As technology continues to evolve at an astonishing pace, we face a fundamental choice: Will it replace humans or free them to do new kinds of work, and more of it? We believe that businesses and society have a choice, and we advocate for a future where human workers, augmented by 21st-century technology, have, as Tim wrote in his new book, “the potential to turbocharge the productivity of all our industries.”
Further, we believe that learning is the master augmentation: Learning makes this positive future, which we call the Next Economy, possible. In the Next Economy, learning is the strategic driver for individual and organizational success. Larry Fink, the CEO of Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, recently identified employee education as the most important corporate investment. In his 2017 letter to investors, he wrote that businesses “must improve their capacity for internal training and education to compete for talent in today’s economy and fulfill their responsibilities to their employees. In order to fully reap the benefits of a changing economy – and sustain growth over the long-term – businesses will need to increase the earnings potential of the workers who drive returns.”
How will people and robots work together? A recent New Yorker cover story, which featured workers at the office furniture maker Steelcase, offers some insight. The workers know that the robots and computerized work stations on the factory floor have reduced the number of people needed on their assembly lines; for many tasks, robots are clearly more efficient than people. But they’ve discovered that the jobs left to humans are now safer and less stressful.
It’s a good bet that technology will continue to replace current jobs, from low-skilled assembly jobs to traditionally white-collar, data-intensive jobs like legal research. But it’s an even better bet that our companies and society won’t run out of work that needs doing by humans. We’ll have new kinds of jobs, and they’ll continue to change at a pace unseen in our history. This new reality means that those who will succeed must embrace a continual redefinition of themselves. To thrive in the Next Economy alongside an increasingly sophisticated technological support system, we must be open to continually learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge.
This is the true opportunity of technology: It extends human capability. As our technology grows smarter, we are made smarter, too. We become increasingly able to delegate tasks to artificial intelligence and to focus on more complex challenges better suited to human (rather than strictly technological) solutions. When something becomes a commodity, something else becomes valuable. According to Clayton Christensen’s “Law of Conservation of Attractive Profits,” as machines commodify certain types of human mental labor – the routine, mechanical parts – the truly human contributions will become more valuable. As a result, new jobs have and will continue to emerge. Before 2008, “data scientist” wasn’t a job title; today, it’s considered one of the hottest jobs on the planet. Skills in machine learning (the development and management of new AI models) are even more highly prized. Yet at the same time, new AI platforms are democratizing access to this cutting edge of computer science.
In his book, Tim notes, “One key to understanding the future is to realize that as prior knowledge is embedded into tools, a different kind of knowledge is required to use it, and yet another to take it further. Learning is an essential next step with each leap forward in technological augmentation.” To that end, we’d like to share two important implications for learning and development efforts.
First, in the Next Economy, “learning to do” – highly relevant learning aimed at solving a problem – will be paramount, and technology will enable this type of learning. A good example comes in the form of performance support, or learning that is embedded directly in the employee’s workflow. We believe that performance support and a related type of learning, which Karen calls “performance-adjacency,” will become increasingly popular. Performance-adjacent learning tools are not directly embedded into a workflow but minimize friction and disruption by making it easy to access information and return to the workflow quickly. The more sophisticated the technology people use on the job, the more we expect to see these and other interfaces that teach. Think of on-demand ride services like Lyft and Uber. Global positioning technology enables drivers to navigate parts of a city they have never or rarely visited. The interface literally teaches them as they perform their work. Transportation is only the first of many industries to be revolutionized by this kind of performance support application.
Second, when performance support or performance-adjacent solutions aren’t possible, simulative experiences are a key to learning. In O’Reilly Media’s early years, we aimed for our books to recreate the experience of looking over the shoulder of someone who knew more than you did and watching how they worked. Today, social learning and learning through complex, technology-aided simulations allow learners to manipulate variables and exert agency in ways that increase efficacy.
People learn best when their experience is compelling – interesting, varied and relevant. Given the speed at which technology changes today, the best the traditional K-12 and higher education establishment can do is give people a foundation for working in their chosen field. It’s the job of every company to invest in its employees so they develop the unique and ever-changing skills that drive company success. And it’s the job of every individual to embrace continual upskilling and reskilling. Learning and development is now truly a lifelong pursuit and a strategic driver of individual and organizational success in the Next Economy.
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