In these times of great change, with the blistering pace of advancement in artificial intelligence, algorithms and automation, it is important to step back and separate immediate and near-term reality that will radically change the way we work and live . . . from elements of the hype cycle that will likely not impact businesses for many years.
Headlines like, ‘800 million jobs to become obsolete due to automation by 2030’, or ‘94% probability that auditing jobs will be fully automated’, understandably can cause concern, skepticism and anxiety for many who get caught up in what has been touted as the inevitable.
Indeed, our roles as learning practitioners potentially has never been as important: help people learn and adapt so they can perform in light of these changes, or watch them become as useful as the common housecat. However, based on my experience, there is no doubt that these changes are coming, but it is unlikely that they will be as rapid or all-encompassing as some are currently portraying.
To illustrate, let me rewind to my childhood and share the story of a video I watched in the 1970’s. Unfortunately, at that time, YouTube was not around, so I am talking about a black and white video produced in the 1950’s that illustrated expected technological advances in the home, specifically the ‘modern’ kitchen. I was mesmerized by the idea that meals could be prepared in an automated fashion with little human intervention. The video highlighted how much time would be freed up by using automation to prepare food in your home. It was truly a Jetson cartoon vision. Fast forward almost 50 years, and I still go to the grocery store and buy food items, take them home, and then prepare them much the same way my parents and grandparents did. So, it seems like not much has changed, right?
As I reflect on that memory, there indeed has been quite of incremental progress related to that process. Here are a few examples of how digital and automation has made its way onto the plates of consumers.
- If I choose not to go to the grocery store, I can order online and have it delivered to my home.
- Or, if I choose to order online, I can drive to the store and pick it up without stepping foot in the store (Walmart pick-up).
- Even if I go in the store to purchase items, I can use an app on my phone to search prices at other stores nearby and receive a refund if I paid more.
- When in the store, it is more and more likely that I will be asked to scan my own items and complete autonomous check out.
- And, if I were to near an Amazon Go store, I could simply select items of the shelf and walk out, using a mix of technology and automation.
- If I choose to prepare my own meals but need inspiration, I can order curated ingredients that come with the recipe and instructions from a service like Blue Apron.
- Finally, if I want to avoid cooking all together, I can call Uber Eats and have someone deliver a meal to my door.
Strangely enough, the video from the 1950’s was spot on in that technology and automation would impact the process; however, the basic process of how meals in your home are prepared remains mostly unchanged. How we purchase our food and have it delivered certainly has begun to change, in addition to sweeping changes to the procurement, logistics, supply chain, digital interface for consumers that have made those changes possible.
So, what does my story about a 1950’s video on the subject of kitchen automation have to do with automation/digital skills and its impact on learning and development within organizations? The point is, automation will change the skills required, the way learning occurs, and the way learning is supported within organizations, but not likely in the speed and way in which it has been portrayed. While technology has certainly been revolutionary, the change in learning organizations will be evolutionary.
Here are 5 practical things to consider for Learning and Development within your organization, in order of priority:
1. Ensure every role has an element of digital skills training in their required curriculum
Simply stated, all employees need some level of digital skills training. As Stanford University academic Jerry Kaplan writes in Humans Need Not Apply, automation is “blind to the color of your collar.” Some consider automation as something that only affects effects blue collar workers, when the reality is that anything that deals with transactions, repeatable processes, or anything else that can be documented and learned, will ultimately be replaced by automation. Roles such as loan processor, business analyst, or even auditor are ripe to be automated, in some form or fashion.
Those responsible for learning and development should be reviewing role-based curriculums to determine what digital skills training should be included.
2. Prepare employees to assist with some of the automation of their daily tasks
The reality is that most roles currently in the workforce will have some form of automation, as opposed to roles being eliminated altogether. As automation accelerates, workers will likely be part of the process for automating tasks.
Work with business units to understand the tools and software to be used for automation, so that you can train and prepare employees to support the process.
3. Plan what L&D can do to support employees transitioning from a ‘knowledge worker’ to a ‘learning worker’.
Automation is pushing all of us to think about what organizations, roles and jobs look like in the future. If I think about the evolution of worker types, it goes from a ‘task’ worker, to an ‘information’ worker, to a ‘knowledge’ worker, to a ‘learning’ worker. As stated earlier, we used to consider a task worker as one to be at risk from automation; however, automation has moved up the chain into the capabilities of a knowledge worker. Thus, forcing workers to become learning workers.
Jane Hart, from Learning in the Modern Workplace describes a learning worker like this,
‘Knowledge is a commodity, to be the smartest person in the room all you need is a smartphone. What is far more valuable than knowledge is the ability to learn new things and apply those learnings to new scenarios and environments. This is what the employee of the future needs to focus on, “learning to learn.”’
So, as L&D professionals we should be training all employees on learning to learn.
4. Consider how to use digital skills and automation to enhance Learning
In addition to equipping employees by training on digital skills and automation, Learning and Development has the opportunity to automate much of what happens in the learning function. I have seen many L&D functions in the last few years making significant investments in learning technologies; however, much of that spend has not yielded the return on investment they had planned.
Consider some of the tools in the marketplace that support curated pathways, and leverage external content to augment internal training offerings.
5. Contemplate the role of L&D when automation creates ‘space’
I dare say that L&D, of any function within an organization, will face the most change as a result of automation. Consider for a moment if business units defined training/learning needs, content was automatically sourced by role internally and externally using an algorithm, and the tracking and compliance of CPE was fully automated and verifiable.
The role of L&D will and should look much different in the future, but if we embrace this change . . . we will find higher-value, meaningful and impactful work within our organizations.