ITA Exec Spin: The Future of Work, More Than Just Robots
Friday, April 28, 2017
Posted by: Darchevia Woods
So much is written ad nauseam in the trades and media about the automation and loss of human capital as a vital ingredient in the workforce. It’s been an evergreen topic the last few years with the advent of driverless cars and the continued robotification of manufacturing lines across the globe. This computerization has been the main crux of the conversation surrounding “the future of work” but where does that leave us, humans? The third industrial revolution will radically change the current and evolving work paradigm, but not all jobs will be automated. We’re not all being replaced by robots, right?
All of these questions were top of mind when I sat down with Adam Siegel, CEO & Co-Founder of Cultivate Labs discussing the human variable in “the future of work” equation.
Julia Kanouse: What is bringing about such a focus on the “future of work”? It seems once a generation this happens, but coverage now seems unprecedented.
Adam Siegel: I’ll focus on the “future of work” in the office, as that’s where I’ve spent the last 20 years. I remember at my very first office job, an internship at CNN, not everyone had a computer. Some jobs just didn’t require one. Today that would be unheard of, to not get at least a mobile device with network access.
The development of our computers and the Internet have always felt incremental. We can broadly understand and control them, which paradoxically isn’t that imaginative, but it’s mostly predictable. Over the past 20 years, that has meant helping us do the things we already do, but with far more efficiency: calculate, draw, write, distribute, aggregate, communicate, etc.
I think the “future of work” has become such a hot topic because suddenly it feels as if so much is out of our control. There is now a steady drumbeat of innovation (not to mention global economic shifts, political uncertainty, increasing demographic diversity, and changes in the traditional relationship between employee and employer), leading towards a fundamental transformation in our relationship with work. In a capitalist society, where work is closely tied to how most individuals judge their worth, that’s scary. The subject, therefore, makes for captivating headlines and discussion.
JK: Besides technological changes, which one might consider fairly obvious to implement or plan for, what else should companies be doing to prepare their people for the “future of work?”
AS: Let’s assume most of the general maxims about the business environment will continue to be true: competition will continue to increase and become more ruthless and cutthroat, technology will grow even more assistive and disruptive, and megatrends like demographic shifts and resource scarcity will threaten to change your business fundamentally.
In the face of all that, most CEOs will say they need to become more “innovative,” which is typically translated as their desire to get new features and products to market faster. Or they’ll kick off broad “digitalization” initiatives which are an umbrella for the introduction of more tools.
Ultimately, however, these initiatives are scratching the surface at the principle CEOs should be more focused on for “future-proofing” their businesses: agility.
Is the business agile enough to change aspects of its business model very quickly? Is it nimble enough to react to new competitive threats promptly or account for a disruptive technology without losing market share, suffering financial losses, or having to have layoffs?
And what does agility look like? Perhaps it’s a move to distribute authority and decision making, so over-analysis or organizational politics never hamstring the business. Perhaps it’s increased collaboration with partners and customers. It could also mean a change in culture to one that supports experimentation, measurement, and rapid iteration.
JK: Paint a picture of what a company looks like in 10 years. How is it organized? What does a day in the life of an employee look like?
AS: Instead of making any predictions about specific technologies and how they’ll impact the workplace, the focus should be more on structures and processes.
In broad strokes, there will likely continue to be a movement towards decentralized/localized decision making. Companies realize that to be truly agile and innovative, they must release their white-knuckle grip of control and empower employees to create, innovate, and organically participate in decision making. Work will be far more fluid with strategies designed and guided by better-informed executives and executed by small collaborative teams that come together to work on a particular function or task before dissolving and reforming new teams for the next task. You can see this now at organizations like Zappos, which has implemented “holacracy,” a self-management system or large organizations who have created “innovation centers” designed to test working differently.
For office employees, the biggest transformation will be the liberation of their time from a managing owner. Today, each employee has an immediate boss and a role description. They are expected to adhere to that position description, and any deviation is a special request to their manager. In the future, I believe this ownership of time will diminish. Employees will have the freedom to work on tasks they are optimally suited for based on their past performance and how they get work done.
JK: Many people are leery of the gig economy as it exists today. Is this the future of how most of us will work, or is it a fad that will collapse under its own weight?
AS: The gig economy has soared into the mainstream thanks to companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Handy, which have made it possible for practically anyone to make a stream of income from freelance work. With the rise of technology and customers who expect goods and services to arrive faster and be more efficient, the gig economy is here to stay in the short-term as we know it.
However, I believe this is just the first phase of how the gig economy will ultimately evolve. Depending on your perspective, there will be positive and negative ramifications of what is to come.
A positive trend will be “gigs” will be much more varied and become more strategic - not just the domain of increasing efficiency, but increasing insight too. In the future, someone may participate in a public crowdsourcing exercise and turn out to be an excellent forecaster of tech industry events. From then on, one could easily see them getting additional “gigs” being asked to participate in other forecasting exercises for various companies (and being paid lots of money for such valuable insights.)
On the flip side, companies will be relentless in continuing to look for efficiencies, even if that means treating their gig workers worse or replacing them all together with automation. The socio-economic threat of automation may require the government to step in and play a valuable role in making sure a growing portion of the population are not subject to financial and wellness insecurity.
JK: Your company specializes in helping organizations use crowdsourcing internally. What are some examples of how this has been successful, and what is the future of crowdsourcing as it relates to how we will work in the future?
AS: There are two examples where organizations have been seeing a lot of benefit from doing internal crowdsourcing - both in the insights the organizations get and also in the resulting positive changes to their cultures.
A lot of businesses we work with will crowdsource predictions about their ability to meet metrics, milestones, or relevant industry events like competitive activity. The belief is that people on the ground know what’s going on better than the decision makers a few levels up. So instead of making biased or uninformed assumptions, they’re using crowdsourcing to to ask “What is going to happen?” and guide their decisions making. We’re able to aggregate everyone’s opinion into a probabilistic forecast and also better understand what the organization and its individuals are good at forecasting or where they may be missing critical information to make a rational judgment.
Another example is crowdsourcing seed-stage investment decisions, using a Kickstarter-like approach with your employees. We work with organizations like pharmaceutical companies and large manufacturers to identify ideas related to their strategic initiatives, then crowdfund those ideas using company money. With leadership support of the employees who will work on fully-funded projects, the ideas come to reality, and eventually to market.
Both of these approaches are forward-thinking and fairly radical departures from the way decisions are typically made in large organizations, whether about their strategic direction or how to allocate resources. A new kind of leader drives this change. A leader who is more humble, recognizes they’re successful when they’re the most informed, and leverages the talent and experience they’re already paying for in their employees.
These types of management styles will only continue to proliferate faster as organizations, and their leaders, acknowledge that in addition to efforts with technology and data to get more “insight,” they are sitting on an even greater resource. A resource that has been there all along: hundreds of thousands of hours of wisdom, knowledge, and experience their people have accumulated that is being drastically under-utilized.