The Future of Work

ATMs and Strategy

When ATMs were first rolled out, economists, politicians and the media panicked. Automation was to rob bank tellers of their jobs! With people no longer required to give the correct change and stamp deposit slips, the world was tipped to be experiencing the early stages of the robot revolution.

The reality, however, is more nuanced. There are more bank tellers than ever. Rather than widespread job loss, the introduction of technology for routine tasks instead changed the job focus for bank tellers to higher value tasks like customer and relationship management, financial services and sales.

Bank tellers are just one example of an industry where the changing nature of work, technology and society demand a different set of skills from our workforce. I’ve been reading about this a lot lately, to get my head around the nature of human work, teams, leadership and strategic change that complements the coming wave of AI and big data.

The big thing that stands out to me? The skills and capabilities most required, moving into the future, all centre around some core themes:

Critical thinking, engagement and influence and contextual/tacit knowledge

…. aka: the stuff that we aren’t aware enough of, or too inconsistent or ambiguous about to automate.

… aka: strategy, change and influence.

 “We know more than we can tell.” – David H. Autor

The Human Value Chain

Only humans are strategic. Ironically, even getting to a machine-led future, which requires meaningful and intentional integration of technology into our lives and organisations, demands the strategist to understand context, set direction, align social and cultural norms and change hearts and minds.

It’s a bit like when you buy a new piece of technology or software to solve all your problems (I’m looking at you, Apple Watch gathering dust in my bedroom) and realise you actually need to change something about yourself or your life to get any value from it.

Renowned economic historian J. Bradford DeLong talks about the ten categories of human productive value, tracing their evolution over time.

The first two levels involve manual, physical labour and manufacture – while the third and fourth capture the control of machine-driven production.

In the fifth and sixth categories, we move through to jobs requiring us to use and exchange information and communication – like accounting and communications. At the seventh, we are creating meaning and systemising tasks (such as writing code and developing software.)

The eighth level sees human connection introduced, while in the ninth we become more relative in our significance (acting as “cheerleader, manager, or arbiter for other humans.”) The tenth and final level sees us thinking critically about complex problems, then inventing ideas and solutions in response.

Technology has been working itself through the bottom levels at pace.

According to Delong, “over the next few generations, this process of technological development will work itself out, leaving humans with just four categories of things to do: thinking critically, overseeing other humans, providing a human connection, and translating human whims into a language the machines can understand.”

Investing in Strategy

It makes sense, then, that these are the capabilities we invest in for our future!

Except… we’re not. While employers are asking (crying out for?) for strategic thinking, and graduates assure us they know how - the evidence suggests there’s a real mismatch.

 ATMs did not spell the end for bank tellers, and machines are unlikely to spell the end for strategists any time soon – in fact, the demand for jobs with critical analysis, meaning making and leadership skills is predicted to skyrocket.

Are you and your team up for the challenge?

Stay tuned for more on this as I delve deeper into the world of strategy 101 and work on my mission to build strategy capability across community facing organisations.

PS – Do you have a burning strategy question? To celebrate the upcoming launch of my new Strategy 101 programme, I am running a FREE Q&A video series, which I will publish on LinkedIn (and link you all to the following week) every Wednesday.

Send your questions through and follow along to hear what other people are asking.

Til next week