Many people are afraid of the changes technology will bring. However, they often forget that we have been adapting to technological changes all our lives. By adopting new technologies, we have been augmenting our capabilities even if we did not realize it at the time. The most obvious examples are the introduction of computers in the business world in the 1980s and the launch of smartphones for personal use in the 2000s. In their book The Adaptation Advantage: Let Go, Learn Fast, and Thrive in the Future of Work, Heather McGowan and Chris Shipley look at the three ways technologies impact work and enhance human potential: augmentation, atomization, and automation.
The augmentation of work involves integrating digital technology into operating processes, making humans and technology work together. Technology can often complete tasks faster or do things humans cannot do. The augmentation of work is beneficial when analyzing large sets of data, detecting patterns, or using sensors to track various types of activity.
The atomization of work means breaking down jobs into separate and discrete tasks and tapping into the global talent pool to get that work done most efficiently and at a low cost. Using the gig economy and websites, such as Fiverr and Upwork, is a simple way for companies to find the best providers.
The automation of work deals with redistributing work between humans and systems, as well as assigning routine, repetitive, and predictable tasks in whole or in part to computerized labor. Robotic process automation has recently been used to automate many back-office tasks in HR, accounting, and compliance. Smart Compose is Google's way to help people write emails faster. As people type, Gmail offers writing suggestions.
McGowan and Shipley argue that the way to adapt to the above technological changes is by upskilling, reskilling, and reinventing ourselves. To upskill, individuals need to deepen their knowledge and skills in their current domain. To reskill, they should extend their knowledge and skills to new domains.
The authors see employment taking different forms in the future. Jobs will be categorized as:
- Foundational – work that is primary to the company's operations
- Rotational – work that is required periodically
- Contingent – work that requires specific skills for a specific task
- Transformational – work that involves individuals who help to navigate organizational change or product strategy
- Executive producers – "those who bring specific talent and networks to deliver a project or event"
As we hand off some of the work we used to do to technology, what will we learn to do next? In the time of change, McGowan and Shipley urge organizations to shift from "scalable efficiency" to "scalable learning." A management consultant and author, John Hagel, said:
As the pace of change increases, many executives focus on product and service innovations to stay afloat. However, there is a deeper and more fundamental opportunity for institutional innovation - redefining the rationale for institutions and developing new relationship architectures within and across institutions to break existing performance trade-offs and expand the realm of what is possible. Institutional innovation requires a new rationale of "scalable learning" with the goal of creating smarter institutions that can thrive in a world of exponential change.
In the past, the emphasis was on learning how to work. In the future, the emphasis shifts to working in order to learn. On-the-job training used to involve learning how to perform aspects of the job for which one was hired in order to acquire skills to do the work. From now on, we will take "learning from our work as the primary benefit of work." We will ask ourselves, "What has the work taught me?" We will want to identify the skills and insights we developed at the job and assess how we can apply what we learned somewhere else.
As the pace of change continues to accelerate, what we produce is determined by our capacity to learn. Lifelong learning will become more important than ever. As McGowan and Shipley remind us, "The slowest pace of change you'll ever experience for the rest of your life is happening right now."