Tuesday, November 15, 2016

New Technology: Twas ever thus...?

Rachel Burnham writes: When I was 10 and in the final year at my junior school, we followed a series of television programmes about communication through the ages – I remember enjoying the mix of history and science.  There were two episodes that stood out for me.  The first concerned the puzzle to understand and translate Egyptian hieroglyphs and how the finding of the Rosetta Stone, which contained the same text in three languages: hieroglyphs; demotic script; and Ancient Greek, allowed the former to be translated.  The second was the very final episode which concerned communication in the future - my abiding memory from this, is of people talking to each other at a distance and being able to see other through a device like a television screen.  This seemed like an impossible dream then!  And for years afterwards it seemed to me as though this would always be a fantasy, akin to Star Trek’s voyages.

And as I continued on in education, nothing much seemed to change.  There were no signs of computers at all throughout the whole of the rest of my schooling.  After school I took a year out and worked for the Open University here in Manchester – there I did get to see and even use a computer – of course the OU were and are pioneers in the use of technology – I remember the row of terminals which we used to access student records down the line from the main frame at the OU headquarters.  At university, I was lucky to be able to type all my assignments, unlike most of my peers who had to hand write theirs – on a portable manual typewriter!   We did get to do some computing in one course, where we learnt to write a program to order numbers (if I remember rightly?).    So, nothing much seemed to be changing for a very long time and the idea of talking to someone, whilst seeing them, still seemed an impossible dream.

Working in a series of voluntary organisations in the first part of my career, computers were around, but few and far between.  Then suddenly we all had one, and they were networked, and overnight everything changed.  The future happened all in a rush!  Now what once seemed an impossible dream is a daily commonplace and computers pervade every aspect of our lives, not just work.  And this technology is changing and developing constantly.

At this week’s CIPD Annual Conference I attended a number of sessions which explicitly focused on work and the future – the theme of the conference.   My Sketchnotes from the conference can be found in a previous postIn one of these sessions Dr Almuth McDowell and Dr Richard Mackinnon discussed with David D’Sousa ‘Digital Work’.  They began by focusing on now, rather than the future, partly because we are so bad at predicting the future, but also because now is just so interesting – there is so much happening right now, that we need to get our heads around.   Though Richard Mackinnon reminded us that all through the 60’s and 70’s people commented on the huge pace of change and the way that technology was central to this, so this isn’t new.   So, perhaps this has always been the case down the ages as each ‘new technology’ has been introduced – for that generation, for that age, the change was huge.  May be these changes feel huge to us, because they are our changes – the changes and the challenges for our generations.

This panel talked about the way that technology was replacing some jobs and at the same time leading to the creation of new jobs.  Whilst other jobs are transforming from one thing to something very different eg fighter pilot to drone pilot.  These sorts of changes have many implications in terms of the cognitive requirements of jobs, the implications for managing the ethics of this and how to help people to learn & develop into these changing roles.  The panel identified a series of skills that will continue to be vital for the future amidst all this change such as adaptability, resilience, problem-solving, emotional intelligence and not information, but where & how to find it.

In a similar vein, Daniel Susskind spoke about technology and the future of the professions.  This was based upon the research that he and his father have carried out and written up in their book ‘The Future of the Professions’.  Based on his session, I would highly recommend reading this book. 

He explored with us why we have professions and why they are challenged by the way that technology is developing.  He identified that the professions are facing four key challenges: cost; antiquated ways of working; opaque ways of working and simply underperforming.  It is clear that there are massive changes afoot for a great many professions and that these changes are already here and happening now.

Linking back to the previous session, if we had been called on to predict which jobs would be affected by technology, we would most likely have focused on low skills jobs being replaced by automation.  However, Susskind, explored the ways which technology is affecting professional work, so that high skilled roles are being replaced by lower skilled roles supported by technology.  For example, rather than a specialist doctor needing to diagnose a condition, a nurse (so still a skilled role, but not so specialist a role) could undertake this, when supported with technology to aid diagnosis - with the possible additional advantage to the patient, that the nurse has the people and empathetic skills lacking in many doctors.

Susskind explained that one of the reasons we have found it so hard to predict how technology can develop, is that we have often assumed that machines will need to tackle tasks in the way that humans do.  When actually they don’t.  Once this mental hurdle had been crossed, there have been found many ways of using technology to tackle tasks that could previously only be done by skilled people. 

Actually, it occurs to me, that actually not only do machines not need to do things in the way we have done them, neither do we.

Which brings me, to the final keynote of the conference, which was delivered by Gianpiero Petriglieri, from INSEAD on leadership.  He was exploring why leadership is about more than just competences, particularly in what he called this ‘age of nomadic professionalism’.  He discussed that way that effective leaders make us feel and that involves ‘a cocktail of skills and passion’.  He spoke about how effective leaders create meaning for others through the way they convey and live a story which converts anxiety to hope.  He spoke of how they are prepared to sacrifice for that story.  He looked at leadership as having two aspects of performance – achieving aims, but also embodying shared values.  So he was suggesting that leadership does not need to be done as it has been done in the past.  He defined global leadership now as:

‘the courage, capacity, curiosity and commitment


work with, learn from and give ‘voice’ to the other’.

This was a hopeful and inspiring note to close the conference on.   We need courage, capacity, curiosity and commitment to respond to the changes that our world and our workplaces are facing both from technology and the other economic and political challenges.  We will need to hear and work with other ‘voices’ to do that.  This view of leadership is very different to that which most of us have experienced in the workplace to date – and it seems a very long way from the model being expressed in the political sphere at present. 

There are challenges a-plenty for us all here, whether in relation to digital work, the impact of technology on professions, including our own and the kind of leadership that is needed.  And the future is here and now!

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals update and refresh their skills.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance. 

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