The clock speed of business and society is on the rise. So much so that strategy and tactics are converging, as are the present and the future. Thus, the future of work is not an abstract concept reserved for discussions about the future working lives of those born today.
We are already seeing strong signs of work entering the post-industrial era.
- Rote work whether in a factory (blue collar) or in a furnished office (white collar) is being replaced by new technology.
- A career for life is becoming more of a life of careers.
- The granularity of work is shrinking, such that we are seeing the emergence of the gig economy.
Perhaps, ironically, we will start to see blue collar workers becoming more valuable than their white collar counterparts. For example, doctors will likely get phased out by artificial intelligence (AI) driven decision engines.
Surgeons will be replaced by precision-cutting robot arms.
But helping an elderly person out of the bath requires a whole set of mechanical abilities that robots have yet to master. Hence for such roles humans will still be required.
Those who are familiar with my perspectives know that I believe that the future will require talented people and leaders. Talented people will be those who can do things that new technology has yet to master that can lead to differentiated services that command a high margin. Leaders can be thought of as the people who get the obstacles out of the way so that the talent can do its thing with minimal cognitive leakage.
In my conceptual model of the future there are no managers. Or more specifically there are no more drum beating / stick and carrot waving managers whose primary job is to make unmotivated / lazy people do what they are supposed to do.
The reason such managers are no longer needed is because there will be no lazy people.
To survive in the digital economy, we will need to be highly motivated and passionate about what we do, knowing that our next gig is highly dependent on our performance in the current gig.
A few questions thus emerge. Firstly, should we aim to become a leader or the talent? That question reflects an industrial era mindset. In the digital age, I would recommend being both, as it gives you more gig options. Work will increasingly be less about solid commitments of activity spread over months and years, and more about multiple projects running concurrently with a granularity in the order of hours. Thus in any given week, you could be both a leader and the talent.
Specialist or generalist?
The next question is whether I should be a specialist or a generalist. Firstly, consider that workers are becoming increasingly augmented by technology. As organisations start to build the workplace around the talent, they will provide augmented intelligence (AI) tools to support their people. What we will be capable of with such tools is unfathomable.
Imagine if you were able to make life / mission-critical decisions as if you were a heart surgeon or military general because you have access to the associated decision-making tools.
Thus technology will make us both highly adaptable and capable of taking on greater responsibility. This also raises the question of why bother specialising if the wisdom of experts is already distilled into an app. Well this isn’t going to happen immediately, but assuming it does in the near future, our value will arise from being adaptable generalists.
In years gone by, I was a consultant at a major IT systems house. What I worked on was less determined by my career aspirations and fully determined by what the market needed at any given point. Thus, I found myself regularly walking into client environments masquerading as a subject matter expert who was being charged out at a premium because of my apparent expertise. This is a highly stressful dynamic.
One that results in what might be called hyper learning (and ‘intestinal disturbances’).
I would go from zero to eighty percent competent very quickly because my credibility / career survival depended on it. That world that I inhabited circa 20 years ago is about to become your world too. Although you will have the benefit of AI-fuelled tools to address that pesky knowledge issue.
Where I believe we will need to continue developing our expertise is in the following areas:
- Personal branding.
- Running our career like a lean startup.
- Commercial management.
- Service management.
I explore this in my book Beyond Nine to Five: Your Career Guide for the Digital age.
In many respects, the creative industries have always operated this way. If we take advertising as an example. The client sells washing detergent. The creatives responsible for the advert know little about the motivations of detergent buyers beyond the obvious.
Who does what on the project is not determined by the planned career trajectories of the talent pool, but by the availability of the talent to staff the delivery team.
At that point, a best fit role mapping exercise will be carried out to maximise previous experience and skills. But there is a very high chance that people will find themselves in unfamiliar roles. Yet somehow, they step up and morph into the role that completes the team. Again, this is scary. But it is also exhilarating and fun. No two days are ever the same.
The future is here
After twenty years, you will have acquired twenty years (or more) of experience, rather than one year of experience repeated twenty times.
The future of work is already here. It’s been here for quite a while, albeit in isolated parts of the market. As we enter the digital age, the future of work is about to spread across the land with the ferocity of a forest fire. Be ready.