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The Next Big Tech Breakthrough? Your People

Posted by Larry Murff

Today, you’re looking to fill jobs. Tomorrow--whether you acquire talent for retail, healthcare, banking, or a solar-powered factory making self-driving cars--you will be shaping a workforce.

Sounds like a good gig, right? Pretty important, kind of artistic, and most likely meaningful. Definitely better than those doomsday reports that have AI running the economy and the rest of us on a government stipend, sitting around watching Jeopardy pretending we know the answers. Not surprisingly, AI does have something to do with it. But that hard-to-define, often unsettling and now and then inspiring bouquet of qualities that add up to our ‘humanity?’ That plays a pretty big role, too. Both in your job and in those of the folks you’ll be trying to hire.

Here are some of the changes coming down tomorrow’s rather un-proverbial pike:

Atomization of jobs. No, this does not mean only middle school science teachers will find work in the fourth industrial revolution. It does, however, portend that the days of matching candidates to clearly defined ‘jobs’ may be numbered. As humans and machines work more closely together, machines will take over parts of jobs. Definitely the tedious, onerous, repetitive, soul-crushing type parts--the ones that lead people to vandalize cubicles and get a little too voodoo with the paper clips. And some of the more deductive parts as well, especially the ones that have to do with analyzing patterns. Tasks like quickly and accurately reading CT scans, or deciding the dimensions of the ideal women’s size 8. On top of this, with technology moving faster than the babysitter’s boyfriend when the car pulls up--coupled with trends like mass personalization--the jobs to be divvied up will be in a pretty frequent state of change. Recruiters will more and more look to match (both robotic and human) skills to their every-changing docket of currently needed work--rather than match candidates to static sets of responsibilities. And believe it or not, this is a good thing. Why? It empowers employees to kick routine tasks to the curb and gives them the chance to strategically and creatively have a direct impact on an organization and its growth. In other words--it gives everyone a chance to matter.

Curiosity becomes king. Smartypants analyst types for every industry say it will be hard to predict what any industry will look like four years from now. And four years from that? Who knows! As tomorrow pulls into the parking lot, the most important quality you’ll look for in candidates is not CS superpowers, back-end badassery, or even mastery of Scrum. It’s the ability to paddle the whitewater in this churning surge of change: the capacity--and motivation--to constantly learn.

Most likely, your job will not only include acquiring such talent but creating opportunities for the people you already have to flex their learning muscles. For instance, AT&T. This learning culture front runner has invested $1B in the retraining and ongoing education of its existing workforce. And no mandatory lunch-time classes here: employees must proactively reach out and opt-in to available education resources, and invest time and effort outside of work hours.

Team members, however, not only rise to the occasion but love it: recently they put Ma Bell on the Fortune 100 ‘Best Companies to Work For’ list for the first time ever. Plus, the company’s encouragement of go-getter-edness in its education model helps out its organizational redux. As it moves away from a command-and-control structure with highly specified roles to broader, more fluid job categories, workers have more autonomy to make decisions and determine strategy. Exactly the type of environment where self-motivated learners can kick some emerging technology butt.

Purpose really matters. Back in the ’80s, while the rest of us were busy calling the Ghostbusters and playing with our Rubik's cubes, Charles Handy was hard at work theorizing the organization of the future. The pioneering structures he dreamed up--such as the Shamrock model and federalized, flat enterprises--are becoming the reality of today. Innovative companies adopt them because they, well, support innovation.

Innovators need the flexibility to thrive in rapid change. And Handy’s thinking reflects this: in his Shamrock model, for example, the three leaves represent three types of team members. Core, essential leaders make up one leaf--tasked with a long-term strategy and charting the future of the organization. In the second, contractors autonomously execute on the core’s broad strategy--operating with a high level of trust; and, in the third leaf, a flexible and contingent workforce carries out day to day tactics to a high standard of quality.

The obvious dilemma, of course, is why on earth would workers with oft-changing duties and without long term job commitments deliver on the whole ‘high quality’ thing? Handy’s answer stems from a basic and essentially human quality: the need to belong and to make a difference. Third-leafers perform out of loyalty. They hit it out of the park because they have an emotional commitment to their organization, and see themselves as part of a community. They feel this way because their organization has clearly articulated to them their value, and explained exactly how--together--they are making a difference and contributing to the betterment of the common human enterprise. They know they are doing good, important work. And they’re damn proud of it.

So to sum it up, the looming juggernaut of technological change will, ironically, make the workforce more distinctly human. New organizational structures will make the most of our species’ obsession with learning, and emotional bonds between organizations and their team members will help run the engine of positive change.

And, according to the expert types, this tomorrow we speak of will start defining our new reality sometime between, well, tomorrow--and a handful of months down the road. So the smart money’s on recruiters who can do today’s job, and the future’s, at the same time. Which really isn’t as hard as it seems. In the agile, talent-driven times ahead, EVERY applicant is important. So in every interaction, tie them to you with the strength of your employer brand, and with good old common decency. Because they may not have a role in your organization today. But they sure might be needed tomorrow.