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Work – Global Challenge

Not since the Industrial Revolution, when work migrated from fields to factories, from villages to company towns and cities, and from families to corporations, have the context, form, and nature of work been in such flux. Organizations now question how to make the best use of their people resource and educational institutions seek to predict what skills will be required for the next generation. Individuals increasingly think in terms of work not balanced with other priorities, but integrated into their lives. I see that the future of work is influenced by four unstoppable trends each of which will have significant impact. Taken collectively they suggest the need for a fundamental rethinking of management, the way we work and what we work on:

Geographic and Economic Dislocation: Networks have reduced or eliminated barriers to entry to national labor markets for many categories of work. This is particularly evident in areas such as IT (through outsourcing), engineering (e.g. Innocentive tapping global talent pools), and medicine (e.g. tele-radiology). As off-shoring increases, it puts pressure on wages in the rich countries, and skills rise in nations with lower per capita income. And, as income increases in emerging markets such as India, China, and Brazil, growth in demand for skilled services will occur disproportionately outside the developed world. Together, these two effects lead to income stagnation in the rich countries and rapid wage and employment growth in emerging economies. Looking ahead, these all point to equalization of purchasing power incomes, segment by segment. Eventually this may inhibit globalization through backlash against growing displacement, increasing the pressure for barriers to trade, and could put multinational corporations at odds with their home governments.

Automation: Farming once occupied 60% of the U.S. workforce; now the number is 3%; manufacturing in the U.S. now occupies about 15 million people -fewer than 10% of the workforce; and this number will continue to fall by 1.5 million per year through to 2016. As networks and decision-making algorithms become more powerful, we can predict that services jobs will be displaced next. Although many offer ideas, it is difficult to identify exactly what will replace them.

Education: Life spans and careers continue to grow longer as the half-life of knowledge continues to shrink. A decreasing proportion of value will be added by repetitive work: physical machines will become more self-aware and adaptive, requiring less supervision; more importantly, information technology will eliminate services and middle management labor. Since the growth in ‘value added’ will be through innovation and creation, a major challenge will be to ensure that education (both early and continuing) will support the development of a “creative class” of all ages, in the same the way that public high school taught people to work in large enterprises organized around the division of labor. Since the educational institutions in the rich world have proven very resistant to change, it is likely that innovations in primary and secondary education will come from emerging economies and, in university and ongoing education, from the business sector and self-organized networks.

Collaboration: Web 2.0 is teaching organizations about the power of collective work product, leading to “Enterprise 2.0,” an organizational form with porous boundaries, shared responsibilities, greater transparency, and fewer mandatory rules and practices. In part, these organizations will likely help answer the education question, as jobs become more diverse and stimulating and the habit of looking outside one’s organization for answers becomes prevalent; the challenge will be to discover how management will take place in these adaptive enterprises.

These four evident and ineluctable trends will impact us all in different ways and the implications for how our individual work lives are multiple and varied.

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One Response to “Work – Global Challenge”
  1. Ian Brinkley says:

    The end of work through technological developments has often been predicted, but never realised. For example, in the 1970s some argued that the widespread use of computers into offices would destroy office based employment. More recently, it was suggested that managerial jobs would be made redundant by new technologies and organisational changes that would allow companies to strip out their middle tiers of general managers. In some areas that did indeed happen, but overall managerial jobs increased very rapidly – reflecting both growing specialisation but also organisational complexity. Overall, new technologies have been associated with higher rather than lower levels of employment in the economy as a whole. The challenge is how to handle the disruptive economic, social, and industrial changes that major developments in technology can cause. This recovery will not be an exception.

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