Future of work and innovation management

It is common to say that the way we work is changing. Megatrends such as globalisation and digitalisation are both offering new opportunities and challenging existing structures around work and employment. Perhaps partly due to the inherent uncertainty, there is much hype and many projects around the future of work. Often the perspective is rather general, and claims such as “robots will take 30% of our jobs by 2025” and “95 million jobs going to robots in the next 10 to 20 years” are easy to throw around. However, what is perhaps more interesting is to reflect the transformation of work to your own job.

I attended the ISPIM conference at Porto last week and facilitated a hot topic discussion on innovation management and the future of work. There were two 45 minute discussion rounds, the first mainly with people working in industry, the second with researchers. The discussion was lively and the themes that emerged were pretty much in line with previous conversations I have had on the topic. Here’s what was said.

Change or no change?

While everyone agreed that work in the future will be different and there will be significant changes, many did not think their own job would be that different. This was either due to being in a country or culture where “everything is adopted last” or simply believing that the current tasks are such that automation, new organisation structures or other developments won’t change them that much. Interestingly, some believed that their tasks will not change that much, although “it would be nice if they did”. Researchers saw their jobs least affected, although in general everyone seemed to agree that repetitive jobs will vanish.

Although the job might not be that different, the categorizations and boundaries used today will not be applicable tomorrow. For example the dichotomy between industry and academia was seen to become more and more irrelevant. Likewise the role of “innovator” was seen as part of everyone’s task, and not the exclusive right of the R&D department. In research, involvement of different stakeholders is increasing in importance, blurring the line of basic and applied research as well as the boundaries between research and policy making.

Organisation structure and human nature

Digitalisation enables new forms of organisation, such as holacracy. The discussants felt that the organisational structure will become more fluid, although much of the discussion was still assuming that there will be clearly defined companies and organisations. Managers become leaders with the emphasis on control shifting towards guiding. Networks were seen as important and overlapping: an innovation researcher could do consulting with one community and at the same time engage with a more scientific community on the frameworks and theories of innovation.

An interesting debate about the “natural” form of organisation emerged in both groups. Some felt that hierarchy is an integral part of human (and animal) communities, and thus structures such as holacracy are challenging to adapt (it is worth noting that holacracy has an hierarchic structure, although it is dynamic). Others saw hierarchy as a cultural construct that is being challenged by distributed forms of governing, enabled by technologies such as internet and blockchain. This is an interesting and in my opinion undernoted source of tension when talking about the way of working in the future: some might be opposed to new modes of working simply because they feel “unnatural”.

Moving from skills to mindsets

Navigating in networks, using new tools and coping with a dynamic operational environment requires more a shift in mindset than a new curriculum of skills. There are two main reasons for this. The competences needed in the future have to do more with feelings than rational thought. Things that were mentioned when discussing about future competences included curiosity, reflexivity, being driven by passion for your work and sensing the context. Educational system should reflect these needs and focus on teaching different mindsets and not specific skills; or teaching mindsets through skills.

The second reason for the emphasis on mindsets was that future competences were seen as collective and not individual. The skills and knowhow of individuals is secondary to the capability of the community. Working in a networked and distributed system requires strong culture of collaboration, and thus the discussions about future competences should rather be on the level of community than individuals. Again, instead of competences it might be better to talk about mindsets needed for the future of work.

Automation and artificial intelligence: friend or foe?

The impact of digitalisation, automation, robotization and artificial intelligence (AI) were mentioned in both groups already in the introduction round. It is one of the key attractors in the discussion around future of work. It both excites and creates unease, perhaps because it so clearly depicts our relationship with technology: can we use it to our benefit or do we become slaves to its impacts. AI was seen to replace repetitive tasks, allowing especially researchers to focus on interpreting the results of their studies at a general level. On the other hand, when existing analyses become easier and new types of analyses become available, the bottleneck is not the methods but rather the quality of data. The value of (good quality) data was thus seen to increase.

Related to the quality of data, the ethics of artificial intelligence were also briefly discussed in the second group. When using AI as a tool to support innovation management, it should not be seen as an objective producer of information, but rather as a fellow researcher, with preprogrammed biases. More generally, the question of programming ethics to AI was raised also by Tim Jones during his keynote; it remains an open question where perhaps also innovation scholars can contribute.

Coping with the impacts: basic income

The negative impacts of AI and automation in general were of course also discussed, the biggest worry related to the rapid pace of job replacement. There was a lot of concern for social stability due to the quick transformations happening to work and employment. Basic income was discussed in both groups as one possible solution, but attitudes towards it were mixed. Some were excited to see it being tested in places like the Netherlands and Finland (the vote of Switzerland was also mentioned), while others were very skeptical as to can it actually work. For example the Portuguese discussants were certain that it would not work in Portugal, not because people are lazy but because the mindset is set on survival, not flourishing. People work because they have to; if the need to work is taken away, nobody will work. However, when asked if innovation managers or scholars would still exist, the answer was affirmative without hesitation; apparently those working in innovation do it for the passion, not money.

Lessons learned for future discussions

The main insights for me from the meandering but enjoyable discussion can be distilled into three points:

  • It is easier to see the nuances of transformations when reflecting them upon your own life (or job in this case)
  • Many discussions boil down to very fundamental assumptions about human nature and behaviour (such as the question about hierarchy or basic income)
  • Being open to reframing the discussion opens up new perceptions (for example reframing the question about competences to be more about culture and mindsets)

Many thanks again to all the participants for a constructive and fun hot topic discussion!