Technology is changing rapidly, and many companies are eager to implement solutions that will improve their productivity. Corporate technology leaders understand how their organizations can benefit, but the big unknowns are how to predict the future, how to get staff to adapt and how to understand the impact of technology on the workforce and the business processes. So, what’s a CXO to do?

I’ve been thinking, designing and speaking a lot about this lately and have come to realize we have a hidden problem that is not easy to solve but is imperative to solve. Let’s explore this a bit by looking at recent history and what is changing in our world as we speak.

As much as leaders want to adopt new technology to automate their operations and improve the bottom line, no one wants to admit that workers will be automated out of their jobs. No one wants to be that messenger. Avoidance does not solve the problem. CXO’s need to be proactive in keeping their staff up-to-date on skills, knowledge and experience. Incorporating ongoing learning opportunities that can be applied directly to day-to-day work activities can be a solution if orchestrated correctly. I always recommend following an iterative Lean Startup approach over an extended period of time.

Let’s look at how the Internet has impacted business, what the future of work will look like and how we can prepare our people.

The Impact of the Internet on Business

Over the past 2 decades, we have seen entrepreneurial ventures and communities develop in major cities across America. A big catalyst for this has been the birth of the Internet and the subsequent rapid change in technology. This new platform for business and innovation has been a great thing, and it has set the stage for great things to come. It has become a major influencer on the way people conduct business and the way ideas are developed into products. It has begun to change the way we look at work, workspaces and work relationships.

We have crossed the chasm of where the Internet began, and we are now in the Third Wave, as Steve Case outlines in his recent book. In the Third Wave, the changes will spread like wildfire, and they will begin to infiltrate every aspect of business and our lives. If I were to predict a timeframe, I would say it will occur over the next 20 years, but perhaps Moore’s Law has changed that. Perhaps, our society will change ever more rapidly.

The Future of Work

The future of work will involve automating many people out of jobs and changing permanent jobs to gigs. The jobs that stay within companies will be related to “innovation”, intellectual endeavors and orchestration skills. The key employees will be collaborative leaders and innovators. The innovators are the people within an organization who can adapt more quickly and easily, who are comfortable taking calculated risks to try new ways and learn from failures, who know how to proactively think about change and who are constantly learning. They will use Design Thinking to look at problems from the user perspective and find the best solutions. They will use iterative approaches to their work, whether it be coding, marketing, sales or operations. They will learn how to be strong in what they know how to do, and yet, they will also be able to improvise and pinch-hit when necessary. Adaptability and creativity are key skills, and they are teachable and learnable.

Outside of organizations, workers will need to learn how to work on projects that may come and go. There are many challenges to this model, since not everyone can run his or her business effectively while doing productive work, and not everyone wants to do this. New models of employment must be developed to support gig workers. Phil Libin, co-founder of Evernote, recently started a All Turtles, a company to support tech entrepreneurs so they can stay focused on product development instead of getting distracted by running the business. This experiment sounds like a step in the right direction, but we need to do this for people of all areas of the gig economy.

There are some problems here today on both sides of the equation. On one side, people are not being taught enough how to be adaptable, creative and improvisational. This includes workers and students. On the other side, hiring managers and HR staff do not know how to identify these people or even recognize the value they are to the organization. We need 2-sided education and change to prepare for the future.

Preparing People for Work

In this article, I’m only going to address the side of people who work, not the hiring side of the equation. On the people side, a key element to our successful transition to the Future of Work is education and learning. Great teaching and training require the right type of infrastructure for learning, and this is relevant for both educational institutions and businesses. Larger corporations have a bigger responsibility than smaller ones to ensure that workers continue to learn and remain adaptable.

Currently, our schools, society and jobs don’t prepare people for gig work, unemployment or career changes and often times companies do not hire for these skills. There is a disconnect here. Many of these skills should be taught in Middle School, High School and College, but we only scratch the surface in our schools. Kindergartners and Elementary School children have some innate skills that gradually get structured away as we focus learning on silos. Teachers and schools all over the country are recognizing the need for change, and many are experimenting with new methods that look a lot like the journey of an entrepreneur. On the TED stage and in films like “Most Likely to Succeed” by Ted Dintersmith, thought leaders like Sir Ken Robinson, Andrew McAfee and Sal Khan talk about our problems and needs. They even highlight some of the great things happening today.

The experiments have begun, but we have a lot to do and a long way to go. We need to persevere through failures and bumps in the road.

Corporate Value and Responsibility

At the same time as our schools experiment, there is a role that Corporate America should play, too. As companies recognize that current and future employees may not be fully meeting their needs, they need to take action. Successful businesses always take action, and this will benefit them directly as well as society as a whole.

If they recognize they need a new type of employee, one approach is to remove the employees that do not fit that model and look for people who do fit that model. There are two problems here:

  1. Losing an existing employee with corporate knowledge, loyalty and trust and bringing on a new employee with potential value costs an organization time, money and often times morale. The outcome may or may not pay off, and business flow is interrupted.
  2. Finding a new employee with the right job skills and impact skills is not easy, since our employment recruiting process is far from optimized. We try to match people based on superficial skills with recruiting staff members who often do not actually know what it takes to get a specific job done.

Instead of replacing the existing workforce, training and development may be a better option. The payback is often faster and the impact may be greater. Given employees who have shown loyalty, trust and productivity, they probably do not want to leave. They may have lost their passion for their jobs, but they are committed. Companies can show they care about these employees by giving them a challenge and facilitating their learning a new set of skills. This will create a more engaged workforce with renewed energy, and it can provide the change desired by the employer and needed by the company to stay at the forefront, develop new methods and products, and remain competitive.

What are you doing within your organization to improve productivity and costs through automation? How are you keeping your people relevant? Have you succeeded in creating a learning organization? Is your workforce engaged and adaptable?

Drop me a note and tell me your stories. I’d love to hear what others are doing and possibly incorporate your ideas into future blog posts.

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