If you can’t think strategically, you may be out of a job


A new study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) underscores the daunting training challenges facing organizations and employees around the world in adapting to job requirements in the workplace of the future.

OECD research projects roughly one-third of jobs (32%) in the 32 countries analyzed “are likely to see significant changes in how they’re carried out,” while another 14% of jobs could be permanently lost to automation. That’s nearly half of all jobs potentially impacted by emerging technologies such as automation, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and more.

“The extent to which individuals, firms, and economies can harness the benefits of these changes critically depends on the readiness of each country’s adult learning system to help people develop and maintain relevant skills over their working years,” concludes OECD’s 134-page report.

If so, we have some real turbulence ahead. Educational systems in most countries aren’t yet geared to sufficiently prepare people for the rapid changes that define the digital era. Honestly, the same goes for most organizations. Yes, alternatives such as online courses are beginning to fill the void, but I’d say we’re in for a rough transition.

The key problem isn’t that workers can’t or won’t learn specific new skills such as analyzing data, working with intelligent machines, and new programming languages. Rather, it’s that they are expected to think strategically as they are freed from the menial tasks required of their jobs.

I hate to say this, but the vast majority of workers never have been encouraged to think strategically about their jobs. Instead they’ve been taught to do their jobs, to be productive. They’ve been trained to think like employees, not strategists.

Do I think many enterprise workers can make that leap? Of course! But not all of them will be able to, and that’s going to be an issue.

Then there’s the question of what to do with employees who suddenly have more time available because a machine has taken over some of their more menial work responsibilities. Here’s Marc Wilkinson, DXC Technology’s chief technology officer for Workplace and Mobility, discussing a hypothetical case in which an enterprise installs a new banking system designed to “save money by making people more efficient.”

“Viewed through a traditional lens,” he writes, “an 18 percent gain in productivity among an employee group of 100 people means 18 jobs can be eliminated.” But Wilkinson advises organizations to ditch that traditional lens.

“As productivity increases, rather than look at the result as a chance to cut head count, look instead at the opportunities that can be realized with the extra bandwidth the team now has,” he says.

Wilkinson’s reasoning makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, many enterprise leaders may decide their organization doesn’t need an office full of “strategists” whose contributions may be hard to measure in traditional ways (at least at first), opting instead to retain the old system where the “bosses” do all the thinking and make all the strategic decisions, leaving employees to merely “do their jobs.”

Then again, those organizations probably won’t be around very long because while the cost of change can be high, the cost of not changing is always higher in the long run. And that goes for people too.

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