The future of work as a building block of change

The political landscape has still not got its act together – and I am too impatient to wait for it to change. As the post-industrial society unravels and something new emerges we need to focus on equipping people to participate in what comes next. Our tools to shape these changes are limited so we need to hone them for 21st century challenges.

Politics is one of the tools which sits on top of the process of social change as an attempt to create a directed future – but that process of social change doesn’t stop and doesn’t answer to strident demands that we turn back the clock. But change doesn’t only reside in politics and as we consider if we’re going to have a global, local or perhaps a ‘glocal’ economy we need to think about other shaping forces in the world.

I’ve been thinking more recently about the kinds of changes which organisations and individuals can make to shape a more directed future. Given that we can’t seem to do a lot about Brexit at the moment – what can we do? What are the building blocks of change?

The nature of work – the way we spend our time – is the biggest building block of change and of our economy. If we are moving into the network society then how is the networked individual spending their time? There are a few trends we can look at:


The robots are coming:  I’ve been collecting articles and tagging them #HumansvsRobots for a while because it is clear that there will be few areas of work which are not effected by automation – either physical or algorithmic. From field to factory to call centre, for the last 150 years the low skilled jobs which are ripe for automation have been a backbone of the economy. These jobs are disappearing. This is a workforce which we have been allowing to bump along in a precarious way throughout that period and so in some senses, while the human cost is high, this changes nothing. The fact that automation will also effect professions such as law, accountancy and architecture is perhaps socially even more disruptive.

But its not just of the loss of jobs which the robots cause. By automating key tasks within complex systems automation change the nature of our knowledge of what we are doing and how we are doing it. Sherry Turkle wrote about the effect that CAD (Computer Assisted Drawing) had on the skills of architects in her book ‘The Second Self”. Her observations are equally valid for the professions which are now wrestling with automation. For some these are welcome changes, but does it effect our ability to truly master a topic or arena?


Mastery:  Lynda Gratton in her book “The Shift”, on the future of work, describes one of the qualities of the 21st Century workplace as being ‘mastery’ – deep knowledge of one or more domains. To me, mastery is more than intellectual knowledge and about knowledge that you also hold in your bones. Authentic mastery requires theory and practice and a dedication to constant learning and enquiry. As the nature of work changes, being clear on what you really are expert in and being able to communicate about it will be critical to shaping a role for yourself.  Lifelong learning becomes a cornerstone of the future of work but this opens up many questions about how we equip people to learn and whose responsibility that learning is.


The gig economy:  The gig economy – made up of people working for a variety of employers rather than just one – is here to stay. At the higher value end of work agile, self-directed teams of people who are masters of their subject area come together around specific tasks and then disband. At the lower value end of things platforms build services around people’s vulnerability and make the pretence that the flexibility of work is in the interest employee rather than the platform they are serving.  What is in common across the spectrum of work is that the gig economy requires the individual to take control of their employment in a far more active way than focusing on a single employer requires.


Intergenerational workforces:  We are on the cusp of regularly find workforces with 4 generations active within them. The 100 year life is both a blessing and a deeply disruptive change. In public services we too often focus on the social care implications of a longer life – but we need to also think about what it means for us before we need care because the nature of the work that we do and the way in which we stay engaged in the world of work will have knock on effects on the type of care that we need.


Digital literacy:  For me, digital literacy is the fundamental building block which unlocks our ability to actively engage with any of these changes to the nature of work. Digital literacy – not simply inclusion – which ensures that people can be active networked individuals and not left behind as the nature of work changes and we automate their jobs away. It is the bridge that will help people move between the post-industrial economy and that of the network society.


Transformation has to consider the changing nature of work
In terms of applying these observations, if you are considering a major transformation activity then consider what the nature of people’s work will look like after you are done. If their jobs haven’t changed then you can’t call it transformation. And if you haven’t equipped those people to work in different ways then you have failed to build that bridge that takes them into the new economy and the network society.


What next?
Across all of these trends the requirement for the networked individual to direct their own work – either within a single or across multiple organisations is central. The requirement for life long learning and enquiry is also critical. And the basic entry point of digital literacy cannot be ignored.

As a leader, or as someone who expects to be in the workforce while these changes play out, its essential we start to look at how we are equipping people for the nature of work in the 21st Century. If you are responsible for a major piece of change and transformation then its simply common sense to make sure that you have the right building blocks in place. If you want to shape change then help shape people’s ability to respond to that change.

Never waste a good crisis – and never waste an opportunity to help people learn to work in new ways.



Further reading
If you want to read more about this then I recommend Lynda Gratton’s book as well as the Sherry Turkle reference above. I am looking with anticipation at the planned enquiry into employment practices being led by Matthew Taylor.

If you want to read more about the networked individual then I recommend Wellman and Rainie’s book “Networked” – or for a quicker read this is something I wrote a couple of years ago which gives some background.

And finally – for some thinking about how we design public services for these people

  1. Karen

    October 24, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    In thinking about “the robots are coming”, recall an article by Lucy Suchman (Suchman, L. (2002). Located accountabilities in technology production. Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, 14(2), 91-105.) Her article talked about boundaries between people and technology and the contested nature of how people see one anothers’ jobs – what could be automated and what shouldn’t. A good read and makes you think about the role of intimacy(with data, for example) and what a human’s ability to be intimate with their area of expertise can offer to knowledge creation that automation by “robots” could not.

  2. Ian Chisnall

    November 1, 2016 at 9:35 am

    A great piece as always, very interesting and thought provoking. I confess that I am also impatient.


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