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Work – The Way Ahead

Industrial technology was born in the UK and grew up in the US.  Information technology was born in the US, and is growing up in the emerging economies. The US will fall behind for a period, while it learns to adopt the approaches developed elsewhere. What are these? Looking globally I see four pathways that will influence work by 2020.

Digital Natives in different countries will work together more effectively than the connected and the unconnected within a single country. Digital Natives may find new protocols arising from social networking behavior, and tele-presence technologies will improve in cost and performance.  It’s possible that global collaboration could become much more effective through the development of a range new IT solutions – as it has through email. Cisco, Google, Infosys, Microsoft, IBM and the like are all placing big bets in these areas.

In the next decade, I also foresee a revolution in our approach to education. In Singapore, teachers have been sharing and improving one another’s lesson plans for a decade. In India, “para-teachers” are being trained to teach focused elements of the curriculum under the supervision of senior teachers, one teacher for ten para-teachers; what is more, the para-teachers are trained using on-line tools and experiences. In addition both schools and corporations worldwide are experimenting with simulations and games as training tools. In the US, MIT has put much of its syllabus on-line and home schooling is growing more popular, and home schoolers are sharing materials and resources.

None of these practices amount to an important major global trend yet, but they have the potential to disrupt the way education, training, and feedback and evaluation are done. Education will be industrialized — broken into small, repeatable tasks and thus increasingly deskilled. It will also become “informationalized” — benefiting from training tools that are owned and improved by their “Web 2.0” user communities. Success could address both the “life-long learning” challenge in the rich world and the need to rapidly educate tens of millions of people in the emerging economies.

As well as these pathways I can imagine two more speculative shifts will, both enabled by advances in collaboration technologies.

The first one of these concerns the development of North-South vs. East-West trade routes. As development accelerates in the southern hemisphere and communications and collaboration technologies improve, the attraction of doing business in the same time zone will become powerful. No longer will 24/7 be the only way to link between the centers of resource: Europe will increasingly work with African people resource pools, and the North – South America working dynamic will grow.

The second shift that I see having increasing impact concerns individuals’ predispositions to work together. Human beings are biologically tribal—consequently some amount of face-to-face meeting is required for collaboration among people who don’t know one another.  But time zones are inescapable—global cooperation requires that most communication be asynchronous.  And language barriers, though lower than ever before, persist.  As in the North-South dimension outlined above, these forces could lead to increased in-country partnerships. As the outsourcing trend is mitigated by rising costs of employment in the emerging economies, we may expect to see an increasing shift from off-shoring to on-shoring of jobs in which ongoing relationships are important.  This will not decrease, however, the development of global supply chains and the tapping of pools of capital—financial and human—wherever they exist.

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