(Un) learning about Jobs & Work
By Madhukar Shukla
Crystal-gazing into the future (and that too about people!) is a dangerous preoccupation. And yet, it is also tempting. Perhaps the only way to speculate about people management in the future is by looking at where the emerging business realities are leading us to. In doing so, one can decipher 4 clear trends which will set the people management agenda for the New Millennium.
Firstly, what we see is a shift from a mass-manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based economy. Even in manufacturing industries, pure manufacturing operations have become an increasingly small part of what adds value to the customer. Unfortunately, the operational paradigm for managing people still has its historical roots in the smokestack economy. Essentially this paradigm works on 2 assumptions: one, efficiency can be achieved only when you de-skill the work; and, two, control comes from routinising work. Correspondingly, we have the prevalent people management systems, which are based on hierarchical controls, segmentation of tasks, and a limited access to information.
But the emerging economic order makes the inadequacies of this paradigm obvious. The new economy thrives on knowledge-workers who perform complex and highly-skilled jobs. And, the fast-paced (and uncertain) changes in the business environment make it impossible to routinise most jobs. Developing people practices for such knowledge-workers will be a challenge.
The second shift concerns the relevance and goal of the learning process. Current involvement with learning is based on an appreciation of the fact that the increasing pace of change makes old skills inefficient in dealing with emerging realities. But it still remains primarily a one-time activity: having learned a core skill, one can continue to remain economically productive as long as one continues to incrementally update one's skill and knowledge sets. The major challenge of the future is likely to come from the discontinuity of change. It is important to appreciate that a faster rate of change merely makes existing knowledge inefficient; but when change is discontinuous, it will make the existing knowledge, skills, and mindsets irrelevant.
There are 2 significant people-management issues involved: one, the need to evolve learning technologies that help people to harness new skills, knowledge and mindsets at a fast pace. And two, the challenge to develop unlearning technologies to counter the irrelevancy of knowledge. At present, it is generally assumed that learning automatically involves unlearning. But as the change becomes discontinuous, facilitating unlearning will become a separate people management issue.
The third shift-which will make many traditional hr and management skills obsolete-is in the nature of work and the organisation: work is moving out of organisational boundaries. Traditional intra-corporate functions are getting outsourced; cross-corporate consortia are becoming more prevalent; the Net is enabling people to work from home or elsewhere; and customers and suppliers are increasingly becoming involved in new product development initiatives. Organisations will depend on the performance of people who are not part of the organisation in the same way as they used to be.
Most existing practices for managing people, however, rely on direct controls and monitoring mechanisms. They also presuppose that those who work together for a task, know each other, or belong to the same organisation. The limitations of such assumptions become obvious when the issue is to align and enthuse non-employees about the company's initiatives; or when the need is to create a team of virtual strangers who will only come together temporarily to work on a project.
The fourth shift is a corollary of the third. As work moves out of the companies, so will careers. Companies will have to design career and motivational strategies for people whose skills are required by the organisation, but who are not likely to remain with it for more than a year or two. There are two implications of this trend. Firstly, organisations will need to reconceptualise the work at hand in terms of time-bound projects, and develop relevant performance management systems. Secondly, providing challenge and professional fulfillment would become the key to attract and motivate talents.
In future, however, the concept of the career itself is likely to acquire an altogether different dimension. The emerging business scenario not only provides more opportunities for professionals to move across jobs, but also to create new businesses for themselves. There are also valid reasons to believe that such career or business options will continue to increase as we move into the future. One can identify 2 key drivers of this change: the secularisation of technology and the globalisation of business. Increasingly, easy access to user-friendly technology (or knowledge) will empower individuals to follow their ambitions without having to encounter too many obstacles. Amidst such changes, deciding on a career option actually becomes an act of choosing a lifestyle. In many ways, this would be a welcome change: work will no longer mean just an occupation or profession; it will become the persons vocation (or calling). But this all-encompassing nature of work is likely to have other repercussions as well. For these young, talented, empowered, and global professionals, life in a world full of opportunities and freedom can also bring new sources of stress. For instance, when work becomes one's lifestyle, the chances of imbalances in life's priorities, between professional and personal, career and family, and work and leisure, increase. And more likely than not, the personal, the family, and leisure aspects will take the backseat. The predominant issue in managing these professionals will not be motivating them to work more, but to make them work less!
There are likely to be other kind of imbalances as well. For example, in life's developmental stages. Earlier young adulthood has been the time to learn, to get married, and to establish oneself in a job. One worked to achieve something by the time one was 40 or 50. But as opportunities increase and obstacles vanish, reaching one's life pinnacle would become possible even during the 20s or 30s. One can only speculate what would happen to such people: will they continue to raise the bar for themselves till they get burnt out? Or will they retire and suffer from boredom and ennui? Or turn to entirely new and different areas of pursuit?
Madhukar Shukla is a Professor at XLRI
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