Saturday, June 13, 2015

Workplace Learning in a World "Beyond Automation"

I just finished reading an HBR article by Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby called Beyond Automation, which is the trigger for this post. With automation, AI and robots looming over the job scene, there seems to be a constant fear of humans losing out to computers and technology. It's akin to one of our childhood sci-fi movies finally becoming a reality - the machines are taking over. The digital disruptors in the shape of Robots, Big Data and Sensors are here. However, this HBR article takes a different view of automation and digitization of work, going beyond the gloom and doom mindset. It posits:
What new feats might people achieve if they had better thinking machines to assist them? Instead of seeing work as a zero-sum game with machines taking an ever greater share, we might see growing possibilities for employment. We could reframe the threat of automation as an opportunity for augmentation.
In another related HBR article with an interesting title, We Should Want Robots to Take Some Jobs, the writer makes a valid point:
In the task-centered economy humans have no value beyond the tasks they perform. Consequently, they are indistinguishable from machines and will be replaced by them for reasons of cost-efficiency as soon as technically feasible. In the human-centered economy on the other hand machines liberate humans from predefined tasks with prestated outcomes. This allows them to exercise the value that emerges from collaborating with other humans on open-ended, creative endeavors. (Highlights mine)
Workplaces will have to become more human-centered and purpose driven if they wish to survive and thrive in the 21st Century. And another telling line from the post emphasizes this point : "In the 21st century, creating meaning and innovating will be democratized through technology."

The key is to remember that the tasks which cannot be automated - the ones that require contextual and human touch - are also the ones that cannot be codified and structured. Increasingly the human workforce will have to take on the unstructured work that requires skills like judgement, decision making, pattern sensing, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and more. The reality is that any work that can be codified will be automated. The remaining tasks will require individuals who fundamentally think differently about work and learning. The key question we (as L&D/HR) need to think of is how are we going to support workplace learning to build such skills in the workforce? The table below captures the shifts as I see it:

I have been writing about social and collaborative learning, the importance of communities of practices and networked learning skills like building one's PLN and PKM for some time now. The overarching requirement is to develop workers who think for themselves, who can drive their own learning and are not restrained by the norms and processes of the past. Certain skills will become fundamental to thriving in future organizations. Given that the culture of an organization will also play a crucial role in whether employees are enabled and empowered to think and act autonomously, that is a complex topic related to reinventing organizations and their underlying structures. The transformation required are deep and often painful. 

The diagram below by Charles Jennings captures the shift succinctly. The last point in the image is particularly important -- in the past, workers were seen as part of the machine, replaceable cogs whose performance was measured by efficiency. In today's world, workers are co-creators with machines where the latter augment and help individuals to do what we are inherently good at while taking away the repetitive, "codifiable" tasks.  

Unfortunately organizations have been created with efficiency in mind. All the management framework and operational processes have been honed and polished to increase productivity and to bring about standardization. The digital era has suddenly turned everything upside down by bringing in automation and replacing the human cogs and requiring humans to become more "human like" - thinking, feeling, social and collaborative. This massive shift cannot be dealt with at an incremental level and requires a complete re-imagination and transformation of management models and operational processes. That is the topic for another post. 

This post tries to explore how L&D can partner with business to prepare organizations to meet this shift with greater equanimity and success. 

Build communities - Increasingly it is becoming evident that the era of "follow orders and processes" are gone. Unlike what Henry Ford had once said of his employees: “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?”, it is imperative for today's workers to bring their heads to hearts to work as well. However, complexity and constant emergence, exceptions and novel challenges also mean that individual workers will not be able to solve problems. An individual worker can be efficient; but innovation calls for collaboration, conversation, and cognitive diversity. Inclusive and diverse communities of talented and passionate individuals can do what computers and robots cannot. Communities foster collaboration and cooperation, exchange of diverse perspectives and creation of entirely new knowledge. CoPs lead to an outcome that is greater than the sum of the parts. And L&D must be able to enable such community building within organizations. 

A successful organization today will be an amalgamation of different communities - some of these will be transient forming around projects consisting of multi-disciplinary and cross-functional members. Other communities will be more permanent in nature forming around domains and practices to strengthen thought-leadership and innovation in key areas. L&D's role will be to enable these communities to form, to function effectively and provide sustained value to the members and to the organization.  

Foster meta-learning skills - It is evident from the HBR article that individuals who wish to grow and add value to themselves and to their work need to develop a different set of skills from what worked in the past. The past was driven by fixed knowledge bases, set ways of doing certain things, and a focus on increasing efficiency through task repetition, process improvement, and time management. The future will be driven by learning agility, effectiveness, and process innovation. The big question for L&D/Organization is how can meta-learning skills be fostered? How can workers become self-driven learners? What are the fundamental support required to enable this? IMHO, here are a few things organizations can do to start with:
  • Encourage "working out loud" - Put in place an Enterprise Social Network (ESN), provide community management support, and make openness the default behavior of senior leaders.  
  • Help individuals to extract learning from work - We know that most of workplace learning is experiential, happening on the job while in the process of solving a novel challenge or when creating a new design or managing a particularly "difficult" client. There are two ways to approach the work. There will be employees who will do what needs to be done to complete the work and then move on to something else. Then, there are those who do what needs to be done and take some time to reflect/analyse the learning gleaned from this. The latter are extracting learning from their work and thus building stronger neural pathways to tackle similar challenges in the future. L&D needs to facilitate this for organizations to continually learn. Managers and mentors can give feedback, encourage introspection, and show how sharing in a common forum can help in extracting and codifying the learning. 
  • Provide cross-functional exposure - L&D can recommend and support business in defining learning paths that will enable individuals to work across different functions on stretch assignments. Not only will this ensure that an organization has employees with a holistic view of how the business operates but also provide the diversity much-needed to build pattern sensing and critical thinking skills. It is now well-known that often the best solutions to crowd-sourced problems come from individuals who are far removed from the specific domain of the challenge.  
  • Create space for social learning -  While we know that all learning is social and individuals learn from each other, from experiences, from the environment and the ecosystem, creating a space dedicated to collaborating and co-operating with one's peers can help to build greater confidence in those still tentative about social learning. This will also mean an L&D team well-versed in the various aspects of building one's personal learning networks (PLNs). They will need to actively help the workforce build the required skills well-articulated in the PKM framework developed by Harold Jarche. 
Prepare for future "unknown" skills - This is a tricky one that most organizations steer clear of. There isn't any direct pathway that tell us what will be the core skills needed for the organization to survive 5 years from now. However, a little bit of research tells us that many a promising and thriving org vanished into oblivion because they failed to see what the future held. With organizational lifespan rapidly shrinking (down to 15 years from an average of 75 earlier), preparing to meet the future before it gets us is perhaps the smartest move. But how? The onus is on the organization, on L&D and on each individual to stay on the cutting edge of their domain, follow the digital and technical transformations taking place and evaluate their collective impact. Look at how the newspaper industry has transformed or the film industry for that matter. Kodak failed to see what was coming and went down ignominiously. No one can sit on their laurels and bask in past glory any more. The future can be bright or brutal depending on how we prepare to meet it. L&D and the business have the responsibility to maintain an ongoing research in their domain of operation on the skills they need to develop to grow the domain, the community and to create ongoing value. 

Develop a "growth mindset" - Today more than ever before, organizations need individuals with a growth mindset and flexible expertise. Dr. Carol Dweck eloquently writes about what growth mindset can achieve in her book, Mindset - The New Psychology of Success. According to her, growth of individuals - be they corporate leaders or sports-persons - can be largely attributed to a growth mindset. She cites examples from diverse fields to show how those with a fixed mindset eventually brought about not only their own downfall but also that of the organization they were leading or the team they were a part of. In this age of automation, one of the make or break skills/abilities could be developing a growth mindset. Without an ability to constantly introspect and learn, we will gradually become irrelevant with outdated skills and ways of working. L&D and business need to be constantly vigilant. An organization's culture can impact mindset. A repressive leader can kill passion and a desire to learn. A closed, ego-driven culture can foster a fixed mindset. I highly recommend the book for a through understanding of how to develop a growth mindset in individuals, in oneself and in the organization one serves. 

How is this linked to human work being augmented by machines?
It is closely related. Without the ability to self-direct one's learning and keep pace with change, we will run the risk of remaining tied to past skills and doing well those tasks that can be done more efficiently by machines. A growth mindset and learning agility ensure that we are able to course-correct and keep developing skills that can be augmented by a machine but not completely automated. The same HBR article referenced above talks of 5 ways that an individual can build and develop deeper skills in their domain. For a detailed understanding, do read the article. For a quick reference, I have inserted the diagram below. 

Some fields undergoing rapid development are healthcare, retail, telecom, manufacturing, and BFSI. The digital revolution will eventually embrace all aspects of business irrespective of domain. The dichotomy is that while we are scared of losing our current jobs to computers, we are not equipped to fulfill the potentials and promises that a digital era heralds across industries. Organizations have to be prepared
 to let go of what made them successful in the Industrial era to build the framework for success in the future. There is a serious dearth of skilled workers in all domains. How do we tackle this dilemma? And training is not the answer. The solution has to be holistic enough to let the employee learn in the natural course of his/her work and strengthen that learning through ongoing collaboration and social participation. 

There is much to do and much to think about...this is but a start. 

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