Looming Massive Job Losses Demand New ‘Human’ Approach to Work, Professor Says

Don Tennant

The United States is seemingly oblivious to looming massive job losses that will inevitably occur as smart machines take over more and more functions that are currently performed by humans. We can’t wait any longer to break out of denial mode, and to begin focusing our attention on career paths and ways of working that require uniquely human skill sets.

That’s the assessment of Ed Hess, professor of business administration at the Darden Graduate School of Business and co-author of the new book, “Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age.” Hess has come up with a list of five conversations that we all need to be engaged in as a first step toward redefining the work we do, and how we do it:

CONVERSATION 1: What can I do to stay valuable and employable in a world where jobs are scarce? Simply put, you must start today upgrading your skills so that you can excel at tasks that smart machines won't be able to do well. Those skills involve thinking critically and creatively, diagnosing and solving non-routine problems, and rendering customized personal services that involve emotions to other human beings.

For example, learn a trade skill that requires real-time complex problem solving and complicated human dexterity; train for a service job where you have to emotionally engage one-to-one to meet people's individual needs; train to repair smart robots; learn to excel at working as part of a team thinking creatively to solve problems; or get into a technology job and upgrade your skills every year. Start today building your lifelong learning toolbox, because technology will keep advancing and you will need to excel at constantly upgrading your skills to stay ahead of it.


CONVERSATION 2: What can I do to raise kids who will be viable workers in the Smart Machine Age? It can be very tempting to parent your kids the way you were parented. But now that the world has changed, you need to be very conscious of the messages you are sending. Role model a love of learning and data-driven thinking, teach kids how to think critically, how to manage their emotions, and how to iteratively learn every day by trial and error and to not be afraid of making mistakes so long as they learn from them. And teach them how to work in teams rather than going it alone — in the Smart Machine Age, this is how work will get done.

CONVERSATION 3: Why are school systems, which are built on the Industrial Revolution model, still forcing students to conform to the old definition of "smart"? To thrive in the future, employees will need to be willing to make mistakes. Yet our educational system discourages mistakes simply by forcing students to get the answers right in order to get the highest grades. This also drives competition rather than cooperation, which is antithetical to the needs of tomorrow's workplace. There are many institutional, political, economic, and personal reasons why many of our public schools are stuck in the Industrial Revolution model of educating. They will have to change because they are vital to the creation of opportunity for every child in our society. That is what our country has stood for from its founding. We can't lose that.

CONVERSATION 4: What do organizations need to do differently in terms of culture and leadership? The Smart Machine Age will require most businesses to make four big transformations:

  • Installing smart technology in every part of their business and training their employees to use it effectively.
  • Creating a humanistic people-centric work environment (culture and processes) based on three psychological principles: positivity; self-determination theory; and psychological safety. This will enable the highest levels of human cognitive and emotional performance in concert with technology.
  • Transforming leaders and managers from directing and commanding people into enablers of human excellence. You can't command and control or direct humans to excel at the higher-order tasks that technology won't be able to do well.
  • Transforming their employee training programs into human development programs focused not only on teaching specific job skills, but also on teaching workers how to think; how to use data to make decisions; how to quiet their egos; how to be non-emotionally defensive; how to reflectively listen; how to relate and emotionally engage with others in ways that build positive regard and trust; and how to create and work effectively in teams.

CONVERSATION 5: When 80 million jobs are lost to technology, it stands to reason that a lot of people won't be working. In the absence of work, how can they live meaningful lives? This will be one of the biggest existential challenges the Smart Machine Age will lay at the doorstep of the United States. We are a culture dominated by individualism and the survival of the fittest. We will need a different approach that promotes a "we all are in this together" community mindset if we're to maintain social tranquility and our way of life. We must answer this question: In a world of smart machines, what type of society do we want to be? We will need a new story — an American Dream 2.0. That will require leadership and an inclusive national conversation. That conversation needs to start now because the smart machines are coming soon.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

 


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