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The flexible laborer is the worker of the future

Sept. 6, 2021
Call Heather E. McGowan a futurist if you like, but really she’s an expert at identifying today’s lightning-fast shifts in technology and workplace culture.

By Michael Lev for MxD

Author Heather E. McGowan

Call Heather E. McGowan a futurist if you like, but really she’s an expert at identifying today’s lightning-fast shifts in technology and workplace culture. Then she explains to the rest of us what those transformations will mean and how we as managers, employees, and entrepreneurs should adapt to maximize professional success—and avert obsolescence.

That makes McGowan, who is a consultant and author, a jack of many trade—business strategist, anthropologist, and evangelist for putting the talent and training of people first—on the factory floor and elsewhere.

To McGowan, the future belongs not simply to robots and algorithms but to the flexible workers responsible for those innovations, and the next. “It’s the human capital era,” she says. “The greatest investment you can make is in another human.” 

McGowan is co-author with Chris Shipley of “The Adaptation Advantage: Let Go, Learn Fast, and Thrive in the Future of Work.”

She talked to the digital manufacturing institute MxD about the future of work and why the key to professional achievement will be constant reinvention. She believes many of us will need to pick up the pace of acquiring new skills and maintaining adaptability — lest technology fly past, potentially rendering us irrelevant.

She preaches the need for a monumental “reshifting” in perspective: While previous generations went to college or mastered a trade in order to pursue a career—in other words, they learned in order to work—people today need to think in opposite terms. “We’ve got to work in order to learn continuously.”

 Here are five things McGowan told MxD about where technology, business and careers are going:

1) Post-COVID, the digital revolution will zoom ahead. McGowan and Shipley turned in their book manuscript in 2019, envisioning a future of restructured workplaces, redefined roles and rapid learning to meet the challenges of technological and social advancements. “Change is coming at us with the greatest velocity in human history,” they wrote. A provocative prediction... that came true practically overnight when the pandemic struck.

McGowan wrote in Forbes in March 2020 that COVID-19 could be “the great catalyst” for economic transformation. “I was honestly just guessing,” she says. “I was seeing things happen really quickly that first month. Like universities I had worked with who said that this course can’t be taught online, or this faculty member won’t teach online. Suddenly entire university systems went online in under a month. ... Executives I had worked with who said, ‘I’m not really comfortable with remote teams,’ suddenly got really comfortable, and then were surprised by how well their teams did.”

McGowan cites McKinsey research that industry leapt forward five years in its transformation to digital in about eight weeks due to COVID-19. “Accenture was looking at migration of the Cloud and had estimated we were about 20 percent into our migration, and the remaining 80 percent would take 10 years. Now we’re on track to do it in five.” The World Economic Forum says that by 2025, the time spent on current tasks at work by humans and machines will be equal (compared to 71 percent by humans in 2018). “I don’t know how possible that is, but one of the things I say is digital transformation is simply human transformation,” she says. 

Human adaptations made in real time

McGowan says that beyond specific developments such as a COVID-19 vaccine, most of the tech tools that got us through the pandemic, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, already existed pre-pandemic. The changes were human adaptations made in real time, under stress. “We found out what we were capable of,” she states. “The question is now what do we do?”

2) The skills gap is never going to close. Get used to it. There are different ways to measure societal advancement. One way is to marvel at technological developments. Another is to assess our ability to use those new tools to create lots of good jobs.

McGowan says, inevitably, a skills gap develops because of innovation. “For there to be a skills gap, a human performs a skill and we’re like, ‘Oh, we need more of that.’ And then we start training people to give us more of that. But if it’s a technical skill, those technical skills used to last a decade. Then they lasted five years. Now they are about two or three years.”

McGowan’s book quotes former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty predicting that automation will alter “100% of jobs within the next five to 10 years.” Talk about inherent obsolescence. This pace of technological change will continue to outstrip gains in productivity. IBM says the average of four days of training required to close the skills gap in 2014 had jumped to 36 days by 2018. McGowan refers to this phenomenon as the Adaptability Gap. A Deloitte report blames short-sighted management. It cites lagging “human capital strategies—how businesses organize, manage, develop, and align people at work.”

McGowan says employees shouldn’t freak out about the skills gap. Instead, accept this new reality as a challenge and adapt. “It’s just going to be the norm. Your technical skills will last two to three years, your roles in jobs or at companies may last three to five years.”

3) Successful workers will keep learning (and embrace vulnerability). If the machines are going to alter or destroy jobs, how do humans respond? By entering a constant cycle of learning. To stay competitive in the workforce, McGowan says, “they need to have the ability and agency to want to learn and adapt. ...They need to be self-propelled.”

This shift demands relinquishing the traditional mindset of a career-long professional identity (I’m an engineer, a computer coder, a journalist). Instead, she says, embrace internal traits and abilities. The key, from early school days, is identifying and developing strengths and interests separately from the task of imagining a career path. Warning: There will be many unexpected twists and turns. According to research cited in McGowan’s book, the Foundation for Young Australians stated that young people will likely have 17 jobs across five different industries in their careers. That’s a lot of change.

Agile mindset, adaptive identity

As McGowan and Shipley write, the ability to learn and adapt continuously requires both an agile mindset and a resilient and adaptive identity. But that’s tough to undertake because the unknown is scary, McGowan says. “In order to learn and adapt, I have to say, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this. I’m going to try. I’ve never done this before.’ That’s a space of real vulnerability.”

4) Smart bosses will nurture culture (and embrace humility). Through the history of business, CEOs generally treated employees as costs to be contained. “It wasn’t about creating value, it was about extracting value,” McGowan says. But the era of advanced technology brings a major twist: Workers create much of the value through innovation and invention. Property, plant, and equipment are far less important.

“We’re in the human capital era,” she says. “That’s when you invest in humans in such a way that reskilling is a norm. Upskilling is a given. Also you have to focus on doing things they’ve never done before.”

Her advice to bosses is similar to what she tells new workers: Recognize the speed of change, adapt to it and stay humble about how difficult it is to grasp the future.

“One of the things that the pandemic taught us is this was a huge moment of uncertainty. It’s not going to be our last. It may not even be our last epidemic,” she says. But too many leaders struggle to recognize what they don’t know. They see themselves as unquestioned experts.  

Contrast that with the reality. One executive told McGowan: “We just reorganized and now every single person who reports to me has knowledge and skills that I don’t have.’” No surprise, she says: today’s bosses, who grew up in the ‘80s or ‘90s, didn’t learn data science or cybersecurity or additive manufacturing in school. “There’s a whole host of things that many leaders are going to have to deal with, when the fact is they don’t have expertise. They have to make decisions differently.”

Humility is required. And vulnerability. Leaders also need to nurture organizational cultures strong enough to withstand and exploit change. McGowan says if your company defines itself by what it does, and then the pandemic hits, employees will struggle to adapt. But if it defines itself by why it exists, the organization is more likely to pivot successfully and survive. “It’s the exception to the rule when you really need culture to kick in, and the pandemic was the biggest exception to the rule that we’ve seen in a lifetime,” she says.

5) Humans vs. machines? Bet on the humans. The challenges McGowan explores in “The Adaptation Advantage” revolve largely around a competition between humans and machines. Who succumbs to obsolescence first? She bets on the human workforce to protect their livelihoods and charge ahead into the next tech era, but only if they don’t stand around waiting to lose the contest.

“If we could hand off 15% of things to technology today, what would we do with the extra money we had? We should be investing in humans. That’s the greatest return you can get. You can’t automate something unless a human’s done it first; codified it, turned it into an algorithm, and then automated it.”

One positive sign McGowan cites is a newly enacted Securities and Exchange Commission rule that companies must disclose information about their human capital—meaning provide details on the employee population. “The reason they are doing it is they realize it’s where the value is created,” McGowan says.

Where once, organizations inventoried and valued their equipment, now there is incentive for organizations and investors to focus on people and assess, for example, how much money is spent on training.

“When we inventory physical assets, we would say, 'We've got computer chips that aren’t as valuable anymore because of new ones,’ or ‘We have precious metals that are more valuable because they’ve appreciated.’ If you take that same mindset and think about those employees, wouldn’t you want to know: What are their ages? Do we have diversity? Or are you expecting turnover?

“If you start thinking about a human like an asset then you start thinking about investing in that asset,” McGowan says. “And that’s exciting.”