Human Up

Automation.  Robots. Artificial intelligence.  Digital and social.

The future of work is [fill in the blanks].

We can’t accurately predict the future.  But we do know that it will involve all of this technology stuff.  More and more.  Faster and faster.

A few years ago talk of cognitive assistants meant asking Siri what the weather was going to be like.  Now we are seeing them in use in our own homes.

Last night I was at an event at Liverpool John Moores University, where we were talking about work, technology and HR.  For me, several ideas coming together at once.

There is much in HR work that can be automated.  The routine stuff in particular – and so much of what we do is just that.  This is both good… and bad.  Good in that we can get rid of the non-value add work and focus on what can really make a difference to work and working lives.

But it can lead to a dehumanized experience.  Take recruitment.  When you apply for a job, get all the way to interview, but never actually engage with a person, only an ATS.  It might be time efficient, but it certainly ain’t human.  It is cold.

Can more HR work be undertaken by robots?  Probably. Definitely.

It is all too easy to reject the notion.  Our perception is constrained by what we know and do now. Arthur Danto said that the future is a mirror in which we can only see ourselves.

But even within a future with more and more automated people stuff, or even a first line HR advice robot, this is when our most human side of human resources can come to the forefront.

The World Economic Forum said that in the machine age, only the human organization will survive.

There are some things that only a human can do.  Show real empathy.  Have emotional intelligence.  Listen, completely – not with the intention to respond with a programmed response but simply to be there for someone.  To live, work and act with values that we have determined for ourselves.

It has become something of a cliché to talk about putting the human back into human resources.  But in clichés there is often truth.  Perhaps it is time to embrace it.

The future of work will be more automated. More digital. Filled with more and more tech. More work will be lost to robots and algorithms.  This is inevitable.

But the future of work can also be more human.  If we let it.

Just call me Cassandra

I’m at the HR Directors Business Summit.  There is a whole stream of content on the agenda about the future of work and how HR can lead their businesses into the future and all that it brings.  According to the pre-event research all this future stuff is on the mind of the HR professional. It’s true that  future of work is everywhere at the moment. The topic has gone mainstream. The bandwagon effect will surely follow.

The future of leadership. Future proofing your workforce. Future skills.  Future of recruitment, learning… all of the people stuff.

Spartacus comes to mind. Only instead of everyone standing up and declaring that they are he, everyone is standing up and saying ‘I know the future of work’.  We are all Cassandra now. Cassandra, given the gift of prophecy, but unable to alter future events or persuade anyone to the truth of her predictions.  But like her, when it comes to the future of work and people stuff, will we be believed, or will we stand and watch helplessly as our disbelieved predictions came true?

I’m mixing up my myths and legends.

Here’s the thing about the future of work.  You can write any old bollocks about it.  I know, I wrote a whole book on the subject with that nice Tim Scott.  And chances are that no-one is going to pick up a copy in ten years, read it and then tell us we got it wrong. Of course if they do, we will look very serious and reflective, and say something sounding terribly wise like ‘that was based upon the world as we knew it then, and was subsequently influenced by factors that we could not reasonably have foreseen’. 

The future of work genre generates many unanswered questions.  First and foremost, even if the predictions are true, can we make the changes that we need to make?  Are we ready to change and to open up our perspectives? When many organisations are so focused on the short term, can we take a sufficiently long term view?  Will the hype ever match the reality?

Borrowing shamelessly from an entirely different debate, I will refer to environmentalist Alan Atkinson, who, when talking about environmental change, says that we are stuck in a Cassandra dilemma.  The trends are there, and a likely outcome can be forseen.  The warnings have been given.  But still, the majority can not or will not respond.  Can the same be said of the future of work?  I think that it can.  There are some people too invested in the status quo.  There are some people who don’t want to change.  There is sometimes a lack of the real commitment that is required.  But you can wave Kodak and HMV case studies around the leadership team all you like, but some places are too stuck in their corporate boxes, still too stuck in the ‘it doesn’t apply to us because’.

There’s a quote that goes a little like this: ‘the future belongs to those that prepare for it today’.  The questions that ocurr therefore are these:

Can we? And will we?

 

 

The Starbucks Paradox

The future of work.  Increasingly written about, talked about, tweeted and infographiced. The bandwagon effect is in full flow.  The early adopters have come and spoken at conferences and gone.  The laggards are quickly catching up.

There are plenty of clichés about the future of work, but one thing is certain: a change is coming.

I’ve heard it called the hollowing out of the labour market.

I’ve heard it called the hourglass effect.

I’ve heard it described as a void between the people who matter and the people who don’t.

Well paid highly specialised knowledge work at the top.  Low paid low value work at the bottom.  And nothing much else in between.

So goes the theory.

But like the saying goes, the future is already here, it is just evenly distributed*.  Zero hours contracts, low paid work, reducing employment rights, high youth unemployment.  These problems are already very much in evidence.

There are huge implications for HR and for people management in this definitely maybe future labour market.  We might just find ourselves with a strange tension.  The manager of the knowledge worker versus the manager of the traditional worker, living in a parallel universe, opposite extremes.  A completely new management gap.  If the predictions hold true, we are left with more unknowns than knowns.  A whole host of implications not just for managers and leaders, but the methods, processes and HR practices that support them.

Can all people managers and all employees embrace the potential of the future of work, or just a lucky few?  Will others be left behind, repeating the management models and methods of the past?  A Coffice for some and Taylorism for everyone else?  Will it ever be possible to switch from working or managing at the bottom of the gap to the top?  What will this mean for the skills and jobs mismatch, and the (sorry) so called war for talent?

Are we ready?  Are we heck.

There is a future of work, coffee shop paradox.

If you are a knowledge worker at the top of this future labour market, you can work in a Starbucks**.  Pitch up anywhere with a Wifi connection and a power source for your tablet.  Work is a thing that you do not a place that you go. Just saying no to the 9-5 thing, sitting in an office thing.  Coffee and cake. The crowd and the cloud.

And if you find yourself at the bottom of the hourglass shaped labour market, you too can work in a Starbucks.

Only you will be the one serving the skinny lattes.

 

 

*William Gibson said it first. Although Peter Cheese is fond of saying it too. 
**Or any other coffee shop chain. Take your pick. Personally I prefer Costa. 
 Additional note – after I published this post I found out that the title has already been used by David D’Souza.  Which means I have probably committed subconscious plagiarism.  Sorry David.

Foosball Tables are from Mars, Manufacturing Plants are from Venus

I think we have run out of trite things to say about millennials. The #generationblah onslaught is certainly slowing down in my timeline.

But I can see the emergence of a new trend; its possible replacement. In recent weeks I have seen more conversations, articles, soundbites, all about the future of work. There is some genuinely interesting material about the subject available. I recommend in particular the UKCES report on jobs and skills in 2030, if you haven’t already seen it.

Unfortunately though, like with many new and thought provoking concepts, the inane infographics are starting to take over the insights.

If what I read is true, there won’t be any hierarchy. We will all be working flexibly. In a Starbucks. Avatars attending meetings on our behalf. Fluid, funky, adaptive offices spaces designed for modern collaboration. Open communication through social methods.

Pick your future of work cliché.

We’ve been making a business of predicting the future of work for decades. Check out this article, on the office of the future originally posted in 1975. They thought that the paperless office was just around the corner. I guess we are still waiting for that one.

But here’s the thing. For every funky cool workplace that wants to build a slide in the middle of the office, there is a manufacturing plant or a call centre, still operating the principles scientific management.

For every company who thinks email is a legacy system, there is another where their employees still don’t have a work email address.

For every constantly connected independent practitioner, every knowledge worker, who can pitch up and work in a Coffice because all they need is a wifi connection, there is someone stood on a production line where physical presence is an absolute.

Judged by what you deliver and not the hours you work? Work is a thing you do not a place you go? Try telling that to the call centre worker who has their every toilet break monitored.

When it comes to work, everything changes and everything remains the same. The future isn’t easy to predict. Take the often foretold end of middle management. If it is indeed terminal, then it’s certainly a long drawn out death.

The speed of technological change, the driving force behind much of the change we are seeing today in our workplaces, is evolving at such a rate we can only really predict the immediate future with any real certainty.

Whatever the articles say, many organisations are much more about looking over their collective shoulders to the past than they are focusing on the future. Haunted by the ghosts of their histories. Thinking about what they did before, how things used to be around here. And here lies the challenge for HR. Not building the slide, but building the capability to adapt to what is coming, whatever is coming. Not installing the foosball table because the oh so achingly trendy cool kids have one, but doing what is right for your place, cutting through the clichés. Moving the focus from yesterday to tomorrow, but without jumping on a bandwagon.

When getting excited about this potential future, we also cannot forget one important fact. The future of work still includes the manufacturing plant, the office, the warehouse, the cleaner, the security guard, the lorry driver.

And whatever the future of work has in store, there are some things that I believe will stand the test of time. Good leadership. Developing people. Dealing with the hygiene stuff. Effective communication. Being a role model. Doing good people stuff. The methods might change but the principles don’t.

Maybe we need to get the present right, before we start on the future?

I am indebted to the mighty Neil Usher for inspiration for this post. His better one is over here.

Not the future, the now.

This afternoon, I’ve been talking to a room full of HR folks about social media.

We had a tweetalong.
We had a game of social media bingo.
We took a look into the possible near future.
We looked at now.

The world of work has changed, is changing, will change some more. And guess what? HR will have to change with it.

Because we know what happens to the organisations, functions, professions that can’t, don’t, won’t. We have all seen the case studies, the corporate corpses stinking up the joint.

So to those people who don’t get social, don’t like social, think it isn’t relevant to them, their career, their organisation, think Twitter is about telling people what you had for breakfast, I said simply this.

Does a black and white television set still take up space in your living room?
Do you long for your original, big, old Nokia mobile phone, so you can play just one more game of snake?
Do you lament the lost days of the manual typewriter and the carbon copy paper?
Do you still get good value from your fax machine?

I’m guessing not. Because the world moved on and we moved with it.

This isn’t generational, millennial, science fictional.

We have social, connected, mobile, digital employees. So we must be social, connected, mobile digital employers, organisations, HR professionals.

Seth Godin said that social media is the biggest shift in this generation. I said that it is a big fat gift to our profession. Because social media is people stuff, and people stuff is what we do.

For every company embracing the changes, breaking the rules, making the HR headlines, there are others stuck, trapped, denying, head in the sand burying.

Whether you like it or not, this is the new HR landscape. Social media used to be disruptive, different, new. But now, just normal. So to those who are late to the party, who are quickly catching on, I say it is time for HR to understand, embrace, lead. Help your organisations take the step, make the change.

Social is the future of work.

And the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed.

So hang back, or get ahead.

You still don’t get social media? Good luck with that.

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You don’t get me I’m part of the Facebook?

I don’t like generalisations about generations. But one thing about young people at work today is a fact. They are not joining trade unions.

The latest available figures suggest that less than 10% of trade union members are aged between 16-24.

Why is this? The truth is we really don’t know. There is of course high unemployment within this age group. Some of them are still studying. But as far as I can ascertain, no one has really researched the question. One union did look a few years ago at why younger workers weren’t engaging with lay or formal roles within unions, but this is just researching the views of those who are already within the organisation.

Trade Union membership has been on a downward trend since the 1980s. Around 6.5m members in the UK today, down from the heady days of 13m in the late 1970s. The reasons for this decline are complex and interconnected. There are the obvious factors; the decline in the traditional industries in which trade unions flourished like coal, steel, manufacturing. There is the impact of legislation that has reduced trade union power. Even us HR people have a role to play. Hard to imagine now that 30 years ago there were many organisations in which you would never speak to your employee directly. You would never conceive of such a thing as Internal Communications. You talked to a union. And they talked to the workers. Now we have this fancy thing called Human Resource Management instead.

Back to young people for a moment. If you are a teenager today, entering the workforce, what is in it for you to join a trade union? If you join a business where there isn’t a union, if it’s not part of your family history, if you don’t feel you need any protection, your company isn’t doing collective bargaining, and crucially a trade union is not reaching out to you and making a case for membership, then exactly what is going to encourage you to pay your dues? In your eyes? I actually explained the concept of a trade union to a young teenager recently. He had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. He just didn’t get it.

Jon Bartlett published an interesting blog post recently. He was reflecting on an article that suggested social media networks are the trade unions of the future. Well it is true your network can help you find a voice. It can help you find like-minded people. It can help you find support when you need it. The network of both contacts and friends that I have through social media has been invaluable to me. But it ain’t going to pitch up and sit beside you during a grievance hearing. Nor is it going to fight for your rights, if you need it.
36% of trade union members are now over 50. So add these trends together and it makes a difficult picture for the future of unions, unless they begin to act – fast.

I have been involved in programmes about the future of work. There are many interesting reports written about it, notably the recent report from UKCES. But here’s the thing. There is plenty written about the future of work. Globalisation, technology, flexibility…. But trade unions feature nowhere in this debate right now.

Is the age of collectivism passing? And could it be that somehow, social media is its replacement?

As much as I am an advocate of all things social, I’m not convinced. And I am not sure I want it to be, either.

Changing Futures

It’s all gonna be different in the future. This future of work.

You may have seen the recently published UKCES report on ‘The Future of Work – Jobs and Skills in 2030’, which analysed those trends that are already shaping our labour market, and then attempts to predict what this might mean for the workplace of 2030.

However difficult it might be to predict the future, it is an inescapable conclusion that the world we live in and the world we work in is changing, will change, has already changed. And it happened, is happening, fast. For those of us who remember when fax machines were new and exciting, and what it was like to work on a desk that didn’t have a PC on it, it is easy to forget just how much has actually changed over such a small time period. We now get excited at the latest bit of tech, the shiny new device, and then rapidly get used to it and incorporate it into our lives without further thought.

It’s hard this predicting the future thing. There is only so much that can be said with any sort of certainty. But we do know some of the trends. Demographic change, societal change, economic change, increasing globalisation and fluidity, multi-generations, the shrinking middle, flexibility….

And, of course, technology.

We can now work anywhere, anywhen. We are constantly connected. Technology is ever present in everything that we do, whether it is at home or at work – or indeed the blurring of the two. Artificial intelligence, increasing automation and digitalisation, nanotechnology, cognitive assistants. These things are coming, and will become mainstream. We will incorporate them into the everyday, just like we did the tablet, the app, the smart phone. And then we will wonder what we did without them.

These future of work, future of world trends have huge implications for organisations, employers and individuals alike. They also have huge implications for HR professionals everywhere. We are going to have to have the right HR technology to meet the needs of the changing future of work, and take the lead in developing the right, future focused and future proofed, skills within our workforce. Whilst talk of ‘the right skills’ means unequivocally technology skills, it also means the right capabilities and soft skills to prepare for and adapt to this future of work. As the Future of Work report says, technological growth makes ‘continuous adaption of skill sets absolutely fundamental for successful participation in the labour market. More so than ever before, individuals that are not willing or able to do this will face being left behind.’

There are no certainties, no definitive solutions, no one size fits all approach.

Change is coming and we must be ready for it, whatever it brings.

Next week I am at HR Tech Europe, and will be blogging and tweeting from the event. Follow the hashtag #hrtecheurope to get all the content straight to your timeline.