It’s Not Science Fiction

Let’s start talking about the impact of smart machines on jobs and the next generation

by Tina Manzer

If you’ve been paying attention at all, you know massive changes are coming to the world of work. Specifically, a “technology tsunami” is roaring our way, poised to wipe out tens of millions of jobs. In fact, researchers at Oxford University predict that 47 percent of all jobs in the United States are likely to be taken over by technology in the next five to 15 years. The chief economist of the Bank of England predicted in 2015 that the U.S. could lose upwards of 80 million jobs during that time frame.

Even if the job loss doesn’t pan out in these exact numbers, there will be a change and it will impact many of us in profound ways. So why aren’t we doing what we need to do to prepare? Business professor Ed Hess, a specialist in systems and processes, says we seem to be suffering from a severe case of denial.

“For the most part, we – individuals, organizations, and other institutions – seem to be on autopilot; doing what we’ve always done,” says Hess, coauthor with Katherine Ludwig of Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age. “I think it’s human nature, like a couple on the verge of a catastrophic divorce. We’re avoiding the tough conversations we need to have now. We better start talking, the sooner the better.”

Here are some of the vital conversations Hess believes we should have.

Why are school systems, built on the Industrial Revolution model, still forcing students to conform to the old definition of “smart”?

To thrive in the future, employees will need to be willing to make mistakes. However, our educational system discourages mistakes by forcing students to get the answers right to get the highest grades. It also drives competition rather than cooperation, which is antithetical to the needs of tomorrow’s workplace.

“There are many institutional, political, economic, and personal reasons why many of our public schools are stuck in this educational model,” says Hess. “They will have to change because they are vital to the creation of opportunity for every child in our society. That is what our country has stood for from its founding. We can’t lose that.

“It will take leadership; more funding for public schools; and a coalition of passionate, concerned politicians, school leaders, teachers, and parents to drive the needed change – to transform our public education system to prepare students for the Smart Machine Age,” he continues. “Education transformation needs to happen now because technology is advancing very fast. Some schools are doing this today. Every school needs to be doing it.”

What can parents do to raise kids to be viable workers in the Smart Machine Age?

It can be very tempting to parent kids the way we were parented growing up. But now that the world has changed, parents need to be very conscious of the messages they are sending. They should role-model a love of learning and data-driven thinking, and teach kids how to think critically and how to manage their emotions. Also important is encouraging them to iteratively learn every day by trial and error, and teaching them to not be afraid of making mistakes as long as they learn from them.

Showing them how to work as part of a team, rather than going it alone, is vital. In the Smart Machine Age, this is how work will get done.

“Parents should expose children to new places, to the mystery of science and to making stuff,” advises Hess. “Curiosity should be encouraged, along with learning something new every day, reading every day, and having the courage to try when failure is a possibility. All of these things require role-modeling, not lecturing.”

What should businesses do differently in terms of culture and leadership?

The Smart Machine Age will require most businesses to make four big transformations.

1 Installing smart technology in every part of their business and training their employees to use it effectively.

2 Creating a humanistic people-centric work environment (culture and processes) based on three psychological principles: positivity, self-determination theory, and psychological safety. It will enable the highest levels of human cognitive and emotional performance in concert with technology.

3 Transforming leaders and managers from directors and commanders into enablers of human excellence.

4 Transforming employee training programs into human development programs that focus not only on teaching specific job skills, but also on teaching workers how to
• think,
• use data to make decisions,
• quiet their egos,
• be non-emotionally defensive,
• reflectively listen,
• relate and emotionally engage with others to build positive regard and trust, and
• create and work effectively in teams.

In the absence of work, how can people live meaningful lives?

If 80 million jobs will be lost to technology, it stands to reason that a lot of people won’t be working. This will be one of the biggest existential challenges the Smart Machine Age will lay at the doorstep of the United States. We are a culture dominated by individualism and the survival of the fittest. We may need a different approach that promotes a “we are all in this together” community mindset if we’re to maintain social tranquility and our way of life. We must answer this question: In a world of smart machines, what type of society do we want to be? We may need a new story, an American Dream 2.0. That will require leadership and an inclusive national conversation. That conversation needs to start now because the smart machines are coming soon.

“We will have to learn from our ancestors. How did they find meaning in the hunter-forager days? The Agricultural Age? How did they organize? How did they choose their leaders? How did they govern themselves? How did they appeal to and promote the best of what human beings were capable of doing?

“Without thoughtful and meaningful new stories that are humanity-centric, we run the risk of growing income inequality, lack of upward social mobility and opportunity, and, thus, social divisiveness and strife,” he adds. “Maybe we will need to govern ourselves in more regional ways. Maybe we will need to redefine the concept of work and success, taking the best of what we can from history.”

What can we do to stay valuable and employable in a world where jobs are scarce?

Simply put, we must upgrade our skills so that we can excel at tasks that smart machines won’t be able to do well, like thinking critically and creatively, diagnosing and solving non-routine problems, and rendering customized, emotion-based personal services to other human beings.

Hess admits he does not have the answers; his mission is to get conversations started so that people come up with the answers together.

“People feel scared and threatened,” he notes, “but humans are endlessly inventive and resilient. Unlike machines, we can imagine new realities and reinvent ourselves. We can choose to look at this as an incredibly exciting time for humanity, but first we have to be willing to talk about it.”

Ed Hess is Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. He is the author of 12 books and more than 100 practitioner articles dealing with growth, innovation, learning cultures, and systems and processes. His work has appeared in more than 400 media publications including Fortune magazine, the Washington Post, the Financial Times and Money magazine.

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