Welcome to 2017!
I am committed to making this year a positive one on many fronts. As I wrote last month, I am starting it off not by making “Resolutions,” but by committing to develop new habits.
And my first commitment is to pay more explicit attention to the future of work. Despite the headline above, I don’t claim to have any unique insights into what the future will look like. However, I do have some expectations – and some warnings.
Let’s focus first on expectations. It’s hardly a stretch to suggest that, long term, the future of work will be:
- technology-dependent (duh!)
- globally distributed;
- hyper-connected; and
- massively collaborative.
In addition, I am convinced that much of what we call work will become more and more invisible. That’s a more complex and less obvious idea, but let me briefly address those first four facets of the future before I describe what I mean by invisible work.
Again, that’s not a particularly profound prediction. However, it’s an important starting point. For one thing, it means there is almost nothing that we feeble human beings can do on our own anymore. Technology has produced unbelievable gains in productivity and our basic quality of life. And it will continue to do so for decades to come.
That means that our lives and our working practices will continue to evolve, often in unpredictable ways. So be ready for plenty of surprises – and changes – in what’s possible, what’s desirable, and what’s necessary. Who could have predicted in 2005 how smartphones, social media, voice recognition, and robotics would completely transform not only our daily lives but our personal relationships, our political debates, and even our basic workplaces?
I’ll build on these ideas in future articles, but right now I am particularly intrigued by an insight I came across in Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future. Kelly begins his latest magnum opus by pointing out that a fundamental feature (not a bug) of technology is that it gets better at a pace we’ve never experienced before.
And that means that we are continually subjected to Updates and Upgrades. In other words, we are continually having to learn and adapt to new versions and new capabilities as the technology marches ever forward. We are all “Newbies” all the time.
That’s not easy; in fact, it means that our future is not only not constant, it’s stressful. Never forget that life is a journey, not a destination.
Globally Distributed and Hyper-Connected
These facets of the future are even more of a no-brainer. Our communications infrastructure enables us to do almost anything from almost anywhere, and to connect with almost anyone at a moment’s notice and at almost no cost.
Work has essentially become location-independent; it flows naturally to whoever can do it most effectively and most productively. We broadcast our needs globally and contract with providers no matter where they are. We transmit information and make payments for goods and services without even thinking about where the recipient is located.
This global flow of work requests, offers, and transactions requires a global trust and accountability network. That’s something most of us again take for granted, but it is critical to the emerging global economy we’re creating together – almost without realizing what we’re doing.
In this hyper-connected world, no one is an island. We can do very little alone. Knowledge is too complex, and too widely shared, for any individual to survive independently. In the words of former COO and author Rod Collins, “Nobody is smarter than everybody.”
In the United States alone there are more than 20 million meetings every single day. 20 Million! That’s because this “new economy” depends on group activity, group learning, and group problem-solving.
As Alan Webber pointed out over 20 years ago (“What’s So New About the New Economy?“), the chief management tool for enabling people to learn from each other is conversation – something we also take for granted. Yet effective, engaging conversations are rare indeed. The skills of listening, brainstorming, and collaborative problem-solving are nowhere near as well-developed as they must be if we are to confront and resolve the major challenges of our time (like global climate change, terrorism, income inequality, urban unrest, and health care – to name just a few).
I owe my understanding of how critical the disappearance of work is to Susan Stucky, my colleague and fellow member of the FutureWork Forum. Susan and I are collaborating on a chapter in a new book that addresses the changing nature of work and the digitization of almost everything.
Here I’ll just say that “disappearing work” is not just about the loss of jobs to automation, although that is clearly a continuing challenge – and not just in the United States (I understand that China has lost more manufacturing jobs in the last decade than has the United States).
As we automate processes and embed tasks and decisions in software, and transmit information electronically around the world, we lose the ability to “see” it. Yes, automation and even basic augmentation of human work with digital assistants (and assistance) enhances our productivity and enriches our lives. But it also removes processes and work design from human understanding.
As Susan likes to point out, we now have bread factories being staffed by people who have no idea of how to bake bread. Is that a serious problem? I honestly don’t know; but we should be talking about it. We also drive cars today that few of us can build or repair; our lives are simpler, but we are also highly dependent on automobile manufacturers and car repair specialists.
It’s an evolution to think about, and something I’ll be exploring in more detail here as time goes on.
As I said at the outset, Welcome to 2017! It promises to be another wild ride.
Call me today (+1 510.558.1434) for a free exploratory conversation about how you can become a hero by leading your organization into the future work.