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Being Present for the Turbulent Future of Work

A Futurist's Look at What is Coming

David Kertzner
February 2020

Unsettling, yet hopeful. 

These words lingered in the air throughout an engaging Oregon Organization Development Network (OODN) meeting recently at Daimler’s sparkling North Portland facility, where Futurist and former Intel evangelist Steve Brown shared his insights on the future of work amidst the increasingly rapid evolution of technology.  Those of us involved in OD or training were asked to consider how and where we will fit into this future.  

In discussing the current state of work and, specifically, manufacturing environments, Steve noted that human-machine collaboration is changing the nature of work more radically than ever.  For example, robots, once isolated in cages to prevent them from accidentally hurting human beings, have evolved through AI software into collaborative robots, or cobots, that interact with humans in a shared space.  Cobots are solving problems independently, thinking creatively and processing big data to divulge patterns of behavior that help organizations make better choices … presumably. 

Critical Discussions

At the OODN gathering, attendees in small groups responded to three prompts – the first asking us to describe the future; how we think and feel about it.  Next, to consider the ramifications of anticipated changes on governments, education and communities.  Finally, to speculate on opportunities that evolving changes will provide, the threats ahead and our role in the future.

One aspect of the future that our discussion addressed only peripherally was the impact of multiple languages, cultures, social and political systems on the workplace and technology – and vice versa. 

To that concern, in my work, delivering language and communication training for non-native English speakers, the skills we focus on are particularly appropriate for industries and environments in transition - which are almost all industries, these days.  The first level of success comes when participants in technology (and other) industries improve their ability to explain to colleagues what they do and how it impacts the business. We also help trainees learn to listen, especially when two sides view the same data with certainty in support of their differing opinions. Not surprisingly, as communication skills improve, we see our trainees more fully engaged and solving problems with greater authority. The future is a little brighter.

Still, there is much to be concerned about, of course. Our group discussions raised serious issues reflected in final comments we posted on flipchart paper about roles, consequences and questions – summarized here:

  • Roles: Facilitating transition; skill-building, strengthening agile teams; maintaining human connection
  • Consequences: Continuation of displacement;  expansion of the great divide; social unrest
  • Questions: How do we help those left behind? Can leaders lead with compassion and clarity?

Us versus Ourselves

Responding to collective angst among those gathered – and the tendency for 95% of perceptions about the cobotic future to be negative, Steve noted that unlike the dystopian narratives that entertain us in the media, the real future is likely to be more boring with many positive developments.  Hal, the computer gone rogue in the movie 2001, isn't here yet.  All is not lost!

One likelihood going forward, though: technology by itself will not replace trainers, HR and OD professionals – those supporting the human side of the work experience.  However, it is safe to say that trainers, HR and OD professionals who engage with the tools of technology relative to their organizations will most certainly replace the cohort that does not similarly expand such understanding and engagement.

In the end, Steve Brown emphasized that increased self-awareness, the ability to empathize with others, to think critically and be willing to communicate will be the keys to managing a better world in the future.  With that in mind, he was confident that we have a great opportunity for a better world ahead, with the not inconsequential caveat that we will need to get through these turbulent (and dangerous) times first. 

Unsettling, yet hopeful.

What are your thoughts?  Share them with me at:
 infopae@proactive-english.com; www.linkedin.com/in/dkertzner/

David Kertzner founded ProActive English – www.proactive-english.com - in 1997 to meet a pressing and continuing need in businesses beginning in the dot-com era: well-educated, non-native English-speaking professionals with significant roles struggling to function effectively in fast-paced environments due to language and communication skills and line workers in manufacturing facilities needing similar help as smart industries evolve.  ProActive English has delivered training solutions to some of the world’s most successful companies at locations in the United States, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

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