Written by Zabeen Hirji | Published by the Vancouver Sun

February 26, 2018

Zabeen Hirji: Navigating the Future of Work from 'Learn to Work' to 'Work to Learn'

The future of work is a hot topic. Paradigm shifting technology developments, alternative work arrangements such as the gig economy and crowdsourcing, and social forces are reshaping workplaces and altering traditional definitions of what a “job” is.

Many businesses have begun to reimagine approaches to how work gets done and who does it, and to enable employees to become lifelong learners. However, given the scope, speed, and pervasiveness of the changes at hand, it’s important to accelerate our actions to prepare for the future, which in many ways is already here. 

While we anticipate that work will, in some respects, be better in the future than it is today, we also anticipate turbulence. While it can be tempting to try to lock in a clear vision of the future, it’s time to put down our crystal balls and instead be open to multiple scenarios, embrace bold initiatives, and commit to a mindset of lifelong experimentation, testing, and learning.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done, yet the die is cast. In all sectors, organizations are increasingly finding themselves amid a number of new work “realities,” including:

  • The ability of technologies, for example artificial intelligence, to learn tasks faster and complete them more efficiently than people.
  • An empowered and highly diverse workforce that is demanding new terms and new ways of working — a one size fits all approach no longer works.
  • The need for new models of collaboration across the private, public, not-for-profit, and academic sectors to successfully tackle big issues.
  • The need for organizations to be agile and adaptable and for individuals to learn rapidly, that is, to “work to learn” rather than “learn to work”

In short, the key challenges for businesses are redesigning work to leverage the optimal mix of human and machine capabilities; creating meaningful work and careers; and, critically, helping employees become lifelong learners.

For starters, let’s make learning an “always on” activity, rather than an episodic one, from businesses embedding learning into how work gets done, to individuals adopting growth mindsets and rapidly learning new skills, to rethinking traditional education models.

What can business do to facilitate this? We are, for example, seeing new organizational design models that are moving away from traditional hierarchical structures to project-based teams of employees with diverse perspectives and experiences. The hierarchy is based on knowledge and skills and the culture is inclusive, making it easier for people to bring their ideas to the table. The outcomes? Growth, innovation, and faster response to customer needs yielding a better overall experience. Businesses can design work to reflect technology and drive learning, finding ways to enhance machine-human collaboration that draw out the best of both. Could businesses make accelerating learning and performance the primary goal of job-work design?

On the education side, institutions traditionally focus on imparting the knowledge and technical skills needed in a world of stable careers. However, with the short half-lives skills and technologies have today, we will need new education models that offer multiple opportunities over peoples’ lifetimes to re-skill and pivot to new work and careers. Public policy also has to evolve, for example, by developing new funding models for education and re-skilling and better including marginalized groups and mid-late career individuals.

There is also growing consensus for the need to develop the soft-skills, or “human skills,” that are foundational to all work. These skills include communication, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and empathy. I’d also add that tech fluency is important for all careers. We will need to more systematically develop these future skills at schools and post secondary institutions, as well as through work-integrated learning.

What can we do as individuals? Without question, businesses and public institutions have a key role. But this is a partnership — we need to take charge of our learning and career paths as personal success will largely be driven by our ability and commitment to learning throughout our lifetimes. Yes, part of it is about formal education and training, but it’s more. Make learning an “always on” activity. Continually hone the foundational skills. Take on roles, projects or work that accelerate learning. Be curious and ask questions. Engage with diverse teams. Boldly offer your ideas and experiment. View failures as a path to success. Become known as someone who works to learn. 

The future of work is unfolding rapidly. While we aren’t able to predict it with certainty, we can work with multiple scenarios and take action, implementing promising policies and practices then rapidly scaling those that work and pivoting from those that don’t. This requires bold leadership and new ways of collaborating across the private, public, not-for-profit, and academic sectors. As new realities shape the future of not only work and the workforce but of our economic and social potential and prosperity, we need to take action now to ensure we can adapt effectively, leverage new opportunities, and transition confidently to a new model of work, innovation, and learning.

Zabeen Hirji is Global Advisor, Future of Work, at Deloitte

This op-ed series is a supporting part of SFU Public Square’s 2018 Community Summit: Brave New Work, running February 26 — March 7.

This article was originally published on the Vancouver Sun on Februray 26, 2018.