Learning for the future of work is to understand what makes us unique as humans

  • Humans are “pattern-seeking storytelling animals”, traits that will prove important
  • The further a sector is digitally disrupted, the more value is place on combinatorial skillsets

The human trait of being pattern-seeking storytelling animals is our competitive advantage against the machines, against AI, says Dr Sean Gallagher, director for the Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for the New Workforce.

In the impending future of work, where jobs will be severely impacted by digital technology like artificial intelligence, workers will have to discover and decide the value they can bring to the workforce. Fortunately, we won’t have to look far. For the most part, what is increasingly valuable are the things that make us humans.

It’s the gist of Dr Sean Gallagher’s talk held in Kuala Lumpur on Sat. The inaugural director for the Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for the New Workforce based in Melbourne presented about how the fundamental aspects of learning has to change in order to prepare people for the future of work. Swinburne also has had a campus in Kuching, Sarawak for 20 years now, starting in 2000.

It’s something that we undoubtedly have to think about at the moment. “In my view, there’s no greater challenge facing society today than workforce transformation arising from digital technology,” Gallagher says.

In fact, according to the CIO Survey 2019, one of five jobs will be replaced by AI and automation within five years.

The good news however is that there will still be more than enough work available for everyone. We just have to face the reality that automation is going to impact all work and change the facet of all jobs in the future. “We need to prepare our students and our workers for these futures,” stresses Gallagher. 


The essence of humanity

Digital technology, Gallagher says, are “just tools”, and “tools need humans.” What’s essential now is for us to look not at digital technology, but how we adapt as people. For this, Gallagher points towards the essence of being a human, which he summarises in a saying that he came across: that humans are “pattern-seeking storytelling animals.”

“That’s our competitive advantage,” he stresses. Before technology, or even civilisation, it’s the human ability to identify patterns in hostile, complex and dynamic environments and then communicate it in compelling narratives to our fellow humans is what allows us to survive and protect ourselves.

It’s a mindset that we need to keep as we enter into the fourth industrial revolution, which Gallagher says is not too different from the previous ones, all of which are similarly marked with disruptive technology that destroy certain jobs while creating new industries.

What’s different, however, is the unprecedented pace of change. “Tech is driving a pace of change that we haven’t witnessed before,” says Gallagher, noting that computing prowess has grown so significantly that we’ll soon see quantum computing driving AI development over the next few years.

It’s also the convergence of other innovations in areas like biotech and energy and robotics that drives change at tremendous speeds. To quote Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau: “The pace of change has never been so fast, and yet it’ll never be this slow again.” 

This is further compounded by our interdependency today. We’re living in a hyper-connected world, with everyone being connected to everyone, and to increasingly more things. “What this means is the fact that you can connect to anyone, and that in doing so we become so connected that we cannot become disconnected. This is going to have some profound impact on our mindset, our identities and our business models,” he predicts.


How work will evolve

Quoting Deloitte LLP’s Centre for the Edge co-chairman John Hagel, Gallagher says that “most work in organisations today are routine and predictable tasks. That means that most work can be codified, and an algorithm can be written.” Jobs like that are most vulnerable to be replaced by tech.

He points out two primary ways digital tech are impacting task-based work. Firstly, for any work that is routine and predictable, robots can perform it better. Secondly, digital technology is very good at reorganising tasks. Gallagher cites dark kitchens as an example, referring to units or locations that prepare food solely for food delivery. Dark kitchens are displacing traditional restaurant trade, making food delivery faster than ever.

“We need to continually upskill and reskill our workers to stay ahead of these tech wayfronts. We need to think beyond task-based work for humans,” Gallagher says. That’s because task-based work has diminishing returns.

Speaking about research Swinburne had conducted in 2018, where they spoke to 1,000 Australians to find out how they’re preparing for the future of work, 56% of those workers felt their jobs will change in the next five years. Another survey in 2019 found that there had been a 5% increase in those thinking their skillsets will be redundant in the next half decade.

This, Gallagher says, is why we need to reimagine learning for the future of work. What’s vital now is to impart combinatorial skillsets in the form of unique skillets that fall in the intersection of innate human skills, work experience and technological skills.

Citing the study further, Gallagher points out how different age groups and industry sectors value functional skills (skills needed to perform a job) versus social competencies (emotional, collaborative, creative and communication skills) on top of entrepreneurial skills like leadership and decision making.

What they found is that younger workers (millennials) view having a balance between combinatorial skillsets, while older generations view functional skills as more important.

Things are more fascinating in different sectors of the economy. In asset sectors (industries like mining, construction and utilities), where there are still low levels of digitisation, workers value functional skills more. As for workers in the knowledge sector (professional services, the media) which see a lot of digital disruptions, combinatorial skills are more valued.


Changing the way we learn

What this means is that the further an industry is down the path of integrating digital tech, the more the workers value uniquely human skills and social competencies.

What more, the study found that two in five Australians prefer learning on the job. It didn’t matter which industry or income level or educational background – most workers prefer learning on the job to prepare for work in the future.

“It makes sense, because work is where disruption is occurring, not the classroom. Things are changing so rapidly that that’s where workers want learning to be. Formal education is falling further and further behind,” Gallagher notes.

He likens it to learning a foreign language. Yes, attending language classes and taking exams is one way to learn, but true fluency can only be attained when you immerse yourself in a place and lived and communicated there for a while.

“The measure of language mastery isn’t whether you can conjugate verbs, but how well you work effectively and have relationships in that language. So learning for the future of work is kind of like that, except one difference: here, the language is evolving at a faster pace. The language changes as the learner learns. Classrooms are important as the first step, but it’s a long way behind technological disruption.”

As such, learning for the future of work needs to change its focus. Gallagher says that there are three areas to look into. The first is to focus on creating value. “It’s still important to have knowledge and expertise, but it will no longer be a worker’s competitive advantage. It’s about how we create value in these digitally-disrupted environment. That’s when we know we’re truly learning,” he says.

He cites an example in Luke Harris, a young designer with UAP (Urban Arts Project) Brisbane. As a VR gamer, Harris approached his boss with the idea that their design base work can be significantly improved in virtual reality space. “Today, he is able to drive great value creation by incorporating this into his work,” Gallagher says.

This essentially boils back to the essence of humanity – as pattern-seeking storytellers. Harris identified a pattern in his work that he can innovate, and was able to convey it convincingly to his superiors.

“Pattern seeking is essential, but it won’t be enough without being able to tell a story. If you’re able to convey it and bring others along with you, then it will be worthwhile,” Gallagher says.

“In learning for the future of work, combinatorial skillsets are vital. But the context is also important. It’s about immersing oneself in those digitally disruptive environments. The purpose is not doing existing task, but how to create new knowledge,” he elaborates.

We just need to be more humans than machines.

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