The three jobs of the future

Last week I wrote about the TEDx talk that I've been invited to give. And this week I've been pursuing the topic, reading many articles and research papers. As I sort, order, and mull over these and the approach I should take with the intention of arriving at a cohesive, off the cuff sounding, funny talk that fulfills the TEDx requirements I wish I'd done the improv course that since I had a half-day taster session (years ago) I keep telling myself I should do.

So far, what all this delving into the future of work has revealed is rather a lot of what might be kindly termed hot air. I'm reminded of the tarot card reading I once had where the reader advised me to take more notice of coincidences. It's an intriguing notion that comes to mind each time I'm in a 'coincidence situation' but it doesn't go anywhere. The future of work is the same as it's almost non-actionable. I can only go 'oh' or 'gosh' when, for example, I read from the World Future Society

Forecast #10:
The end of identity as we know it? It may become very easy to create a new identity (or many identities) for ourselves. All we will have to do is create new avatars in virtual reality. Those avatars will act on our behalf in real life to conduct such high-level tasks as performing intensive research, posting blog entries and Facebook updates, and managing businesses. The lines between ourselves and our virtual other selves will blur, to the point where most of us will, in essence, have multiple personalities.

What implications does this forecast have for the future of work? How will we know which of our multiple personalities is working on what? How do we design organizations for multiple personalities? (Although, perhaps, we already do and maybe that's the issue. I think many workers are familiar with the Jekyll and Hyde manager).

One reader of last week's piece suggested that I look at Robert Reich's book The Work of Nations, in which he discusses (Chapter 14) The Three Jobs of the Future. This chapter is definitely not hot air. Although it's 20 years old it's still on target – which was exactly what the reader had said about it. When the book was published in 1992 Reich suggested that 'three broad categories of work are emerging' both in America and in other nations. He calls these three types of work:

Routine production services: those repetitive tasks done over and over – "one step in a sequence of steps for producing finished products tradeable in world commerce", where people are paid by the number of hours worked, or the amount of work done. These jobs can be done anywhere in the world. Although the word 'robot' does not appear in the chapter these are exactly the types of jobs that are now going to robots as the NY Times article that came out last week New Wave of Deft Robots Is Changing Global Industry explains. The article opens saying

At the Philips Electronics factory on the coast of China, hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electric shavers. That is the old way. At a sister factory here in the Dutch countryside, 128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flexibility. Video cameras guide them through feats well beyond the capability of the most dexterous human.

In-person services are jobs that Reich suggests are simple and repetitive too but the services must be provided person to person. He includes, among others, in this category restaurant serving staff, hotel workers, flight attendants, security guards, and physical therapists.

Symbolic-analytic services are those that include "all the problem-solving, problem-identifying, and strategic brokering activities". Intriguingly he discusses how symbolic analysts trade in the "manipulation of symbols – data, words, oral and visual representations." He gives a long list of workers in this category – investment bankers, architectural consultants and systems analysts among them. He explains that "They simplify reality into abstract images that can be rearranged, juggled, experimented with, communicated to other specialists, and then, eventually, transformed back into reality.

What he describes in the next page or so is what in our twenty-year later jargon we might define as 'knowledge worker collaboration and innovation', and following this comes a very amusing discussion on the uselessness of traditional job classifications and categories (actually his words are 'not very helpful'), and for symbolic analysts at least, the irrelevance of standard corporate career ladders. Reich concludes the chapter saying 'The only true competitive advantage lies in skill in solving, identifying, and brokering new problems".

Having read a fair amount over the last ten days or so on the future of work it seems to me that Reich's assessment of three types of job hold good today (bearing in mind the technology advances that mean robots are increasingly doing aspects of the routine production services) and is rather more helpful than some of the other predictions and prescriptions I have read.

It's helpful because he implies the danger in sticking with the known ways of doing things (for example, setting up career paths, classifying jobs into specific categories, questioning the existing ways of working) when even current circumstances, let alone future circumstances, require radical shifts in systems and organization design.

This danger was brought home to me when later in the week I read a fascinating article in Vanity Fair on Microsoft. The employees the article talks about fall into the category of symbolic analysts and the article illustrates the dangers of inflexible and unreflected on systems on their ability to do good work:

"The story of Microsoft's lost decade could serve as a business-school case study on the pitfalls of success. For what began as a lean competition machine led by young visionaries of unparalleled talent has mutated into something bloated and bureaucracy-laden, with an internal culture that unintentionally rewards managers who strangle innovative ideas that might threaten the established order of things"

One of the systems that many of the people interviewed for the article commented on as driving the company towards this state of affairs was the "stack ranking"

"The system-—also referred to as "the performance model," "the bell curve," or just "the employee review"-—has, with certain variations over the years, worked like this: every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor. …. For that reason, executives said, a lot of Microsoft superstars did everything they could to avoid working alongside other top-notch developers, out of fear that they would be hurt in the rankings. And the reviews had real-world consequences: those at the top received bonuses and promotions; those at the bottom usually received no cash or were shown the door."

And so the article proceeds. Thinking on the various readings this week reinforces my view that continuously reviewing, auditing, evaluating and measuring the value (or not) of organizational infrastructures of all types: systems, policies, reward structures etc. and adjusting them either in line with changing circumstances or to drive a change in circumstances is essential to keep an organization moving into the future with a chance of success. Peter Drucker's planned abandonment practice is still my favorite on this. (It's in the toolkit on my website).

If you know of any organizations that keep a close finger on the pulse and healthy contribution of their infrastructure I'd been interested in hearing why they think it is worth the investment when so many organizations appear not to.