When millennials meet AI: the future of work in the gig economy

The confluence of these two forces—the rising tide of AI, and the departure from lifelong single-focus careers—is creating an environment in which change is the new constant

woman leader hipster execs diversity

Over the past ten years we have seen a dramatic rise in the use of data, analytics, and most recently, artificial intelligence. With AI rapidly moving into the daily operations of enterprises, the disruption to the workforce of tomorrow is inevitable. What’s more, this change will only be amplified by the improvements and commoditization that AI brings as it enters every aspect of the modern workplace.

At the same time, our youngest generation has developed a preference for a work style that is radically different than the “company man” approach taken by their parents. Millennials are focused on flexibility, change, emotional satisfaction, and quality of life. Ironically, they are embracing the values their parents, or even grandparents, often espoused but never actualized, resulting in an entire generation that believes in pursuing flexibility and change in the workplace.

The confluence of these two forces—the rising tide of AI and the departure from lifelong single-focus careers—is creating an environment in which change is the new constant. Fortunately, these two forces can actually work together for those organizations that choose to embrace them. As a result, this new wave of workers is exactly the group that will be open to using the technologies that will “replace” them. Their emerging worldview is one of constant learning rather than simply exercising the guidelines  of the past. They see emerging technologies as empowering their next step forward.

In fact, we are already seeing the routinely and less relevant tasks being taken on by machines, while the more strategic and creative thinking tasks stay in the hands of the workers who can use new technologies. The two most critical questions organizations must answer today are: 1) How do we organize our work to fit these trends? and 2) What skills are needed to support this type of organization?

Embracing change

One of the impediments to change is our ongoing belief that it will not happen. One side of the debate is that jobs will remain the same and technological changes are not really going to disrupt the workplace. The other side of the debate states that new technologies will create new jobs, in the form of developers, who will build the next generation of technology. In addition to advances in automation, we have also seen advances in the aggressive sharing of technologies in the open source form, such as APIs and ever-growing libraries of tools for even the most innovative of tasks. People are starting companies based entirely on shared code bases. To state it more simply, even in the world of innovation, we can do more with less.

Likewise, arguments that work will simply become more strategic as technology addresses more tactical issues are based on a hierarchical view of work that even today is hard to support. In today’s world, tasks such as complex medical diagnoses and investment planning are well within the realm of intelligent systems; while collecting, cleaning, and harmonizing the data remain painfully manual tasks. The notion of a constant upward evolution of our workforce assumes that all innovation and automation disruption will come from the bottom up. As we have seen, however, the tasks with the clearest definition at the top are also at risk of disruption.

The winners in the next economy will not be those who resist these changes but those who embrace them.

Tasks, teams, and partnerships

As advanced technologies become more entwined in our daily workflow and staffing becomes fluid, the rigid structures of jobs and fixed roles get in the way of getting work done. To take full advantage  of the resources we will have, we need to create  a flexible work model that integrates technology using tasks, teams, and partnerships:

  • Tasks that acknowledge that there is no longer a one-to-one mapping between fixed jobs and what needs to be done.
  • Teams that are formed around the task to be accomplished and the skills that are needed to do so.
  • Partnerships that include the integration and coordination of both people and machines, working as a team.

The main  idea is that task-based teams can be brought together based on the task’s needs and the skills of the members. Teams are fluid work units, a cohesive collaboration of human and machine capabilities. Changes in those capabilities and the interests and skills of team members would be reflected in team composition.

Structurally, these teams reflect the agile approach we see in software development.  The problem definition becomes the central focus with analysts and architects translating business requirements, developers executing them, and all coordinated by a manager who owns the challenge.

The point is less to worry about the detail of one organizational structure over another but to focus on the task where teams are nonpermanent groups aimed at serving the task. And at any given time, any individual’s role may shift in response to the shifting needs of the team or the advances of new technologies.

Understanding partnership

The core of this approach  requires an engineering skill set. Yet the ability to build is not enough. We need to have people whose minds are driven towards a larger vision. This means understanding the power of “whole brain thinking,” purpose-driven research, and cross-functional teamwork. To further clarify, it means understanding the role of these elements:

  • Whole brain engineering: The view of engineering as an integration of the technical and analytical whereby intuitive and creative thinking fosters a mindset of collaboration and appreciation of nonlinear approaches to problem solving.
  • Purpose-driven research: The approach to work that focuses on the impact of ideas and development rather than just the technical details of the moment.
  • Cross-functional teamwork: The practice of always linking engineers with nontechnical partners who can provide not only new problems but also new approaches to existing solutions.
  • Given the changes in technology and the disruption that they are causing, there is another element we need to consider: training our students how to evaluate and integrate new technologies.
  • Technology Integration: As new, increasingly intelligent technologies are constantly entering the workplace, people need to develop the skills to identify, evaluate, and integrate those technologies into their own teams and workflows.

The elements above are particularly important to training the latest generation of workers for the future. An integrated approach to engineering will provide both technical and nontechnical workers with the collaborative experiences they need to enter the agile, team-focused workforce of tomorrow.

How do we prepare for the world and workplace of tomorrow? By creating a workplace of technological skills embedded in a life of flexible tasks, teams, and partnerships. The persistent skills we need to encourage are less those of the pure technical and far more of the technologist who can work fluidly with his or her team. Rather than thinking everyone needs to learn technology, the reality is that we all need to learn how to work with each other.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.