People are our biggest problem

A lot is being written about robotics and the impact on the workplace, as well as the form and structure of tomorrow’s workforce.

I think we are all in agreement that technology is increasing the pace of innovation and forcing us to think differently: be more customer centric, open via multiple channels to customers, and collaborate more and differently. But what underpins this is that it is always people that companies need to drive that change – exceptional, creative people.

However placing an even greater responsibility on people means the pendulum can quickly swing from people as our greatest asset to our biggest problem. My Pearson colleague Andy Stockinger, Manager of our Product Strategy Team and I presented this at the eATP conference last week. Technology is impacting how we work and disrupting old ways of doing business, so people have to change too, but you can’t simply retrain staff – an organisation needs to think and operate differently, with an entirely new attitude.

With that comes changes to how people learn and how we assess their suitability for the job. We will need to understand how technology has changed their role day to day, and figure out how to reach them accordingly, most likely introducing learning as part of their daily work, integrating training-module updates at more regular intervals and in smaller bite-sized pieces; and then testing and assessment will follow suit, quite possibly taking place live in the workplace.

Finally, let me add: Gen Z, iGen, Next Gen or however we label them, ultimately want the same thing as other generations such as Millenials and Boomers before them, namely job satisfaction, decent pay and career development.

Lifetime employability not lifetime employment

bowler hatI am currently preparing for a presentation that will look at how the acceleration of today’s market trends, coupled with cross-sector technology innovations, might affect the future of education and assessment. I enjoyed Richard and Daniel Susskind’s book The Future of the Professions and will be referencing some of their thoughts – I recommend it as a very good read.

The changes this is bringing the professional world is a far cry from a time when McKinsey consultants had to wear a bowler hat as part of their uniform as evidence of their professionalism. Today, with fewer jobs for life, much less security and very little predictability, we will see both disintermediation and decomposition of roles within the professions and a new emphasis on the ability to learn and adapt as roles change – in smaller, bite-sized pieces, learning and quite possibly assessing on the go.

Knowledge and information have taken on a greater importance compared to traditional assets such as physical capital and natural resources – an educated and highly skilled workforce is among the most valuable assets an organisation has today. But because of the pace of change and progression, the workforce must continually retool its skills.

The knowledge economy is also borderless and knowledge workers are not a homogenous group; they have specialised skills and perform specialised roles, and knowledge workers do not spend their careers with one company; they change jobs frequently and with future generations the likelihood is this will increase.

Therefore, lifetime employability instead of lifetime employment is the goal of knowledge workers. Yet more and more tasks that once required human beings are being performed more productively and cheaply by machines and new capabilities are emerging on an almost daily basis. Machines can look back into data, discern patterns and make predictions (Big Data). Systems such as IBM Watson, with whom we have partnered here at Pearson, can perform tasks that we normally think requires human intelligence. Machines can interact with manual skill and dexterity via robotics and systems are getting smarter at detecting and expressing emotions.

We used to believe these tasks were the sole purview of human beings – are we just training machines to make us redundant? How do we stay in the game, differentiate and compete?

Does your company have a fusbol table?

fusbol

I read a stat recently that said 24.1 per cent of start-ups have a fusbol (football) table in their office. Is this the new silver bullet, the difference between company success and failure? Are we missing out?

We have all seen the images of the coolest offices in Silicon Valley or Old Street with young hipsters in torn jeans and suede boots, mismatched colours painted on the walls and a corner set aside for unpronounceable coffees, portrayed as the best places to work, fuelled by leading-edge technology. But how real is this?

Does a fusbol table really attract the right people? I don’t think so. Aren’t the old values of making a genuine contribution and a clear career plan still the most important factors, regardless of generation? I believe they are.

The greatest word

wordI had a great conversation with Simon Perriton this week – he is the CEO of Just IT and we serve on a global education committee together – and he mentioned that he hires for attitude and can teach skills. Wise words.

Later in the day I thought about what might be the greatest word that we have at our disposal (a close run thing when words such as “love,” “thanks,” “family” and BBQ are considered). That word is “define.”

We can search and find the meaning of any word by using the word “define.” We can action this whenever and wherever we may be, and we get our answer. Let’s put our focus, therefore, on the skills that make a difference – the application of learning, the softer skills, the human side. People can search and find the meaning of anything, how to make things and fix them, on their own.

Don’t teach them what, teach them how, and give them skills employers are calling out for.

A 3-layer cake worth sharing

cakeI recently returned from participating on a global advisory board on education and certification and we debated not just the future but how we can pin it down long enough to be able to describe it and build a strategy around it.

Tech refuses to stand still and while it isn’t quite the bedlam that the comedy series Silicon Valley portrays, it isn’t a million miles away. On my journey back I deliberated and concluded one thing for certain – the larger the audience we try to reach, the simpler the message has to be, otherwise it flies over our heads along with the rest of the information box labelled “overload.”

So what is the next wave? I summarised it as a 3-layer cake with all manner of ingredients built around intelligence, security and people.

The first, top layer, a segment called ‘intelligence,’ is the topping that will propel us into creative new spaces – AI, AR, VR, 3D, (already too many acronyms), drones, robots and my favourite internet of things. This will lead us towards everything cloud, everything connected and everything mobile.

The foundation or base is the security that will be necessary to hold things together, protect the safe business transition to the above and without which we can expect a myriad of challenges that could well hold back progress.

The flavouring in the middle, always the best bit, is where we come in – the people and the skills that underpin the change, the brainpower to drive it forward and the mindfulness to ensure things are done correctly, competitively and for the long-term.

Make our jobs better

The General Manager of Deloitte UK, robotssaid “We should automate work and humanise jobs; give the mundane to the machines and the purpose back to people,” as part of Deloitte research called Essential Skills for Working in the Machine Age.

We need to make our jobs better (different) and add more value to the human side of what we are truly good at. It is not simply a case of putting technology in place of people; Starbucks could quite easily replace people with robot coffee machines in its outlets, but the conversation that takes place in a Starbucks shop, the smell of coffee beans and even the individualisation of your name written on a cup, is part of the carefully crafted Starbucks experience.

We must learn to understand what technology can do for our business and then use it to enhance the customer, but also the employee, experience. Every company has the opportunity to apply technology to make it better.

No question that both customers and employees will be better engaged.

Humans: a case for the opposition

humansThe Future of Jobs report from the World Economic Forum highlighted that over 7m jobs will be lost to redundancy, automation or disintermediation, although they did also state that some of this loss will be offset by 2m jobs in new areas.

We know that as industries evolve and technology puts its arms around a business model and disrupts it, that jobs are created elsewhere, just as retail and services have replaced the factory and manufacturing, so the message to us as employers is invest in the skills of our people, rather than hire more workers, as the key to managing disruptions to the labour market long-term.

Jobs aren’t going away, they’re just changing. We know that softer skills like empathy, communications and prioritisation are essentially human. The future of work is not about jobs going away, it’s about redesigning what we do to make better use of the tools and technology at our disposal.

My point? Robots and technology are already in place. They trade on the stock markets, they drive cars in some cities and they are persistently recommending what we buy next. What they can’t do is serve the delicious loaves of bread in St Albans market with a chat on a Saturday morning or provide that extra bit of care and attention when you’re not feeling at your best – so work with the humans in our teams to find the things they are good at, the tasks and roles that require thinking, judgement and emotion.

Finally, is Nike really launching self-tying shoelaces on sneakers/trainers? Isn’t learning to tie a shoelace an important step in our childhood?

A 60-year career

Fishermen

Gladys Hooper, the oldest person in the UK, recently died at the age of 113. This raised further interest in the population living and working for longer and it seems we have the potential to live much longer than generations before us and way beyond 100 years old.

If that becomes the case and we do live to that ripe old age, then we will need work careers of 60 or so years just to be able to support ourselves. Furthermore, if technology continues to develop at the current pace, and the likelihood is it will as there are no signs of a slow down, then we will experience several cycles of work and will have to re-skill in order to keep ourselves relevant.

Throw in to the mix that by 2030 as many as one-third of jobs in the UK could be at risk of being automated, according to research by the University of Oxford, where do we turn? Our learning will be down to us as individuals to own, to continue to update our portfolio of skills, plus as companies contract at the core, people telecommute and we move from project to project and job to job, we will have to learn on an almost constant basis – for new tasks, new models and new work environments.

I quite like this idea – it sounds more interesting than Nintendo brain challenges that the doctor recommends.

School as base camp

subbuteo

My team co-hosted a great seminar with the Professional Associations Research Network (PARN) this month, and it underlines what technology will never replace – the benefit that people gain from being in a room networking, asking questions and sharing best practice with each other – in other words learning in the real world.

In his book, Open, David Price talks about learning becoming authentic when it has a specific purpose, impact beyond schooling and supports a student’s communities.

What is school about, if it isn’t helping prepare young people for the real world, however small the steps of progress? My daughter returned from her Duke of Edinburgh trek this weekend tired, frazzled and aching from the backpack which stood almost as tall as her. But the experience was priceless and taught her how set up camp, prepare food and work in a team to navigate walks and hazards to reach their destination – the greatest challenge for them was the intermittent phone signal.

Education has to reflect what industry is looking for in skills. It has a tough time keeping up as it is, with first year degree material becoming out of date before graduation, so there has to be a genuine link between what is taught and its relevance to the real world – after all, kids are already more engaged via devices and the online world than we ever will be.

I do wonder, however, how these kids would have coped in the 70s; with just Subbuteo, a bicycle and local park to contend with.

Live Differently

Ignacio Cubilla Banos sits in his house during his 111th birthday celebration in Havana

I was reading with interest a claim that the first humans to live way into their hundreds are alive today, and remembered this great picture of Ignacio Cubilla Banos, around whom there was a story as he celebrated his 111th birthday at his home in Havana surrounded by his family a few years back. It made me think.

If the next generations are going to live way beyond a hundred, how many cycles of learning will they require just to stay up to date with change? Surely they will need a 50 to 60 year career, so learning will need to evolve in parallel.

What we learn today doesn’t carry for very long – we have to refresh what we know almost constantly (think of the story of the university degree, and what a student learns in year 1 is out of date by the time they graduate). As our knowledge and skills become redundant we will have to stay on the cycle of learn-and-apply just to allow us to keep up.

I have variations of this quoted on Twitter and other platforms:

My father had 1 job in his entire lifetime.

My job at Pearson is my 5th in 30 years.

My kids will quite possibly have 5 jobs at any one time.

This is the future.