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The Future of Work in the Automated Age

November 7, 2017

When we think about the future, we typically imagine robotics, artificial learning, and automation. What many of us don’t realise, however, is that the revolution has already started. We are now unquestionably in the ‘Automated Age’ — or as some people have called it, The Fourth Industrial Age.

Automation is transforming business across the globe. And in the business world, it makes sense — automation increases productivity, thereby increasing profitability.

Some naysayers may deny the change, but the reality is that human beings simply cannot execute many work tasks with the speed, accuracy and consistency that computers can. Whether it’s multi-step calculations, organising complex rosters, or managing aviation instruments — computers are increasingly subbing in. A recent Citigroup report warns that 30% of banking jobs could be lost between 2015 and 2025. The Apple sub-contracted manufacturer, Foxconn, has replaced 60,000 factory workers with robots. Expect stories like this to continue.

So how do human beings survive in the Automation Age?

Well, the good news is that automation will not replace human labour. Human input will always be required, just as it always has.

But what will significantly shift is the nature of our work. In the factories, there will be less manual work and far more time spent on higher-order skills such as design, problem-solving, writing the required operating programs, coordinating the installation of machinery, and analysing workflow for continuous improvement.

Not all jobs can be automated, particularly those that are unpredictable or involve complexity that requires human intervention. The jobs that necessitate the need to think laterally, handle difficult or unpredictable people, manage changing environments, problem-solve in highly complex situations and sort ambiguous data are not easily automated.

Most sectors will increasingly rely on a hybrid of advanced automation and skilled technical professionals. Strong technical skills alone will no longer be sufficient, even for technical roles. The ability to be agile and adaptable is essential given this rapidly changing environment. Indeed, as many technical jobs will be supplanted by machines in the future, some business leaders — like Clay Parker, President of Chemical Management Division of BOC Edwards — believe that the ability to continuously learn and adapt is actually more important than technical skills.

The modern day ‘successful applicant’ will also have highly-evolved enterprise skills (also known as “soft skills”). These soft skills include communication, collaboration and teamwork, creativity and imagination, critical thinking and problem solving.

In New Vision for Education — Unlocking the Potential for Technology, the World Economic Forum proposes a three-strand model that outlines the necessary elements for educating students in the 21st century:

Foundation Literacies”- incorporating literacy and numeracy, ICT literacy, scientific literacy, financial literacy and cultural/civic literacy, enabling students to learn how to apply core skills to everyday tasks.“Competencies”- students must approach complex challenges using collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving.“Character Qualities”- the student’s ability to manage a changing environment with curiosity and initiative, persistence and adaptability, leadership and social/cultural awareness.

The final ingredient — creativity

Our esteemed linguists and computer programmers might assume, based on what we’ve just said, that really anyone who works in a digital environment with a capacity to communicate and program is safe from digital disruption. After all, the new economy is about using computers, manipulating code, learning software and other IT-related skills, right? Well, not exactly!

Research has also shown an important and unexpected insight: the highest human value is not about being plugged in but rather about being unplugged.

Peter Senge, author of the ground-breaking Fifth Discipline, states that it’s our mental models that restrict us from seeing what is possible. In order to create, we need to remove the digital and personal filters restricting us. At times we need to unplug, to flex our mental models to better understand the people and physical world around us in order to interact and learn.

Fundamentally, it’s about having the ability to create, to challenge and test the theories, to constantly push the boundaries. This higher order meta thinking capacity is paramount for business survival. Indeed, Fortune 500 consultant Ellen Kumata has stated that creativity and innovation are no longer the sole domain of a company’s senior leaders, but are rather inseparable and most useful to those individuals closest to the work: “You have to be rigorous: test your assumptions, don’t take things at face value, don’t go in with preconceived ideas that you’re trying to prove.”

How to develop yourself in the Automation Age

Developing soft skills is no easy feat and can be especially challenging to many people. So how do we do it?

Developing soft skills is about becoming self-aware and exposing old thinking habits that have been developed in a largely ad hoc manner through the process of socialisation. In this way, it’s as much about ‘unlearning’ — starting from a less safe space where we are prepared to analyse our thinking and be open to change.

This is easier said than done when we’ve become comfortable with our view of the world and rarely challenge our thinking. But the journey of becoming self-aware and developing ourselves at a personal level should never be finalised.

Let me share with you what I believe may well be the most important attribute for the workplace of tomorrow. Imagine a workforce of creative, self-motivated individuals who have the capacity to have robust discussions with each other, but instead of going home feeling bruised, they feel energised and positive. They learn, invent and create.

These are the skills that machines can’t have, and perhaps never will.

So, where to start:

Get a heart! Developing your empathy will enable you to build rapport.

Listen to what you say to yourself. The quality of your intrapersonal relationship has a lot to do with your interpersonal relationships. It also has everything to do with resilience, optimism, and well-being. The brain cannot determine what’s real or not, only what you feed it — and dumping on yourself to the exclusion of the full picture is highly dangerous in the goal of developing a true sense of self.

Listen to others — The most important communication skill of all.Stephen Covey said it best in his best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, with habit number 5: ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood.’

Possess an open mind in order achieve a greater understanding of how others think and enhance your own learning. Learn to flex your mental model.

Collaborate and work towards a win-win outcome even when everything inside you refuses to listen.

Look at problems in unorthodox ways, seeing different angles and finding workable solutions — don’t stop at the first outcome. Consensus is not as important as a brilliant idea.

Develop an insatiable curiosity. This quality can be cultivated or perhaps rediscovered, since children often exhibit curiosity in abundance.

Don’t whinge about others. Become known for your integrity, honesty and trust. Stephen Covey calls this the ‘Character Ethic’ as opposed to the ‘Personality Ethic.’

Step out of your comfort zone. The only way to develop confidence and trust in your own ability is to feel the fear and do it anyway.

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