The evidence that many forms of traditional work are getting automated and outsourced is mounting. Basically, jobs in the 21st century workplace are moving from simple and manual to complex and knowledge-based.
Another way of putting it is based on what Gary Hamel describes as the Creative Economy. We have moved from:
- Industrial Economy based on physical capital
- Information Economy based on information
- Creative Economy based on ideas
When dealing with work problems we can categorize the response as either known or new. Known problems require access to the right information to solve them. This information can be mapped, and frameworks such as knowledge management help us to map it. We can also create tools to do work and not have to learn all the background knowledge in order to accomplish the task. This is how simple knowledge gets automated. Any job that deals with the routine and repeatable is at risk for being replaced by software and offshoring.
On the other hand, work that is valued, and therefore creates high-demand jobs, is in facing the complex and complicated, not in addressing problems that have already been solved. There will always be however complex problems that cannot be solved through automation.
Complex, new problems need tacit knowledge to solve them. Exception-handling is becoming more important in the 21st century workplace. The system handles the routine stuff and people, usually working together, deal with the exceptions. As these exceptions get addressed, some or all of the solution can get automated, and so the process evolves.
The competitive marketplace, with its growing complexity due to our interconnectivity, requires that the modern and future workforce focus on new problem solving and exception-handing. Valued skills will be needed for managing, interpreting, validating, transforming, communicating and acting on ambiguous and fast changing information. Results will depend upon collaboration (working together on a problem) and cooperation (sharing without any specific objective). Workers with these skills can perform tasks requiring a level of action that can’t be automated easily.
A recent white paper (Future of Work) published by Vistage summed up the challenge nicely:
One challenge for organizations is getting people to realize that what they know has little value. How to solve problems together is becoming the real business imperative. Sharing and using knowledge is where business value lies. With computer systems that can handle more and more of our known knowledge, the 21st century worker has to move to the complex and chaotic edge to get the real (valued & paid) work done. In 50 years, this may not be an issue, but right now there are many people who need help with this challenge. This is the important work of leaders everywhere: enabling the current workforce to enter the 21st century.