The Future of Work

Last month, the Institute for the Future and the University of Phoenix Research Institute released Future Work Skills 2020, a report that “analyzes key drivers that will reshape the landscape of work and identifies key work skills needed in the next 10 years.”

The report included a cool-looking summary map that I immediately gravitated to. I posted it on Google+ and drew my own version of the map on my whiteboard. That was more than a month ago. It’s taken me weeks of staring at the map on my whiteboard and going back to the report to really understand what it’s saying.

A snippet of the Future of Work 2020 map

A snippet of the Future of Work 2020 map.

Future Work Skills 2020 identifies six key drivers affecting work in the future: extreme longevity, rise of smart machines and systems, computational world, new media ecology, superstructured organizations and a globally connected world.

Extreme longevity

The Future Work Skills 2020 report predicts aging people will increasingly demand products and service to keep them healthy and active in their senior years. As people become healthier, they will live longer and work longer.

The report’s observations about the struggle to maintain adequate resources for retirement are more compelling. The trend for people over 60, even over 65, to keep working is evident in our current economy. According to the report, the number of Americans over 60 will increase by 70% by the year 2025. The challenges of an aging population will force us to re-examine our approach to careers. With people working longer,  more individuals will have multiple careers and need lifelong learning to prepare them for those career changes.

The ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines will become an important work skill. According to the report, “The ideal worker of the next decade is “T-shaped”—they bring deep understanding of at least one field, but have the capacity to converse in the language of a broader range of disciplines.”

Rise of smart machines and systems

Devices and systems are getting “smarter” all the time. There are thermostats that learn your habits, a fireplace connected to the Internet and iPhone apps that will analyze your sleep habits. These smart devices and systems will replace human workers in some areas and augment them in others. We will be forced to examine what humans are really good at and cultivate those skills.

One of those skills is sensemaking, the ability to find the deeper meaning in complex information. Machines may be able to take over rote tasks or routine jobs, but they are not good at sensemaking. According to the report, “critical thinking or sense-making will  merge as a skill workers increasingly need to capitalize on.”

Computational world

The world is becoming programmable. Digital data is being integrated with the physical world to create augmented reality (check out this video from the augmented reality browser Layar to get an idea of how this works. Profanity warning: one of the Layar folks drops and entirely appropriate “s”-bomb). Meanwhile sensors, communications and processing power are being built in to everyday items (see the section above).

The result is an enormous amount of data that can help, according to the report, “uncover new patterns and relationships that were previously invisible.”

A world with all that data will favor those with the skills to translate and interpret that data. A programmable world will favor those with programming skills or, at least, and understanding of programming.

New media ecology

The media landscape is becoming dominated by online videos, music mashups, virtual worlds and video games. The Internet, once grounded in text and images, is now the platform for streaming movies, editing video and experience augmented reality. A band recently released an album recorded entirely on an iPhone.

We need to be able to “critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms, and to leverage these media for persuasive communication,” according to the Future Work Skills 2020 report.

Superstructured organizations

I’m not sure why the Future Work Skills 2020 report used the term “superstructured organizations.” It’s a difficult term to explain and understand. I translated it on my whiteboard version of the Future of Work map as “Social media and other online networks drive new forms of production and value creation.”

That might be only slightly less clear, but it’s the best I could do in describing a complicated reality where institutions like medicine, education and science, rooted in knowledge and technology from centuries ago, are being disrupted by the connection, collaboration and openness made possible by new social technologies.

The report site examples in medicine like Curetogether and PatientsLikeMe which allow users to “aggregate their personal health information to allow for clinical trials and emergence of expertise outside of traditional labs and doctors’ offices.” Add to that examples of online gamers working together to contribute to scientific discovery and the growing power of open education resources and you can start to see the way organizations are being changed by social technologies.

The results for the workforce are new ways of being educated and trained, as well as an emphasis on skills in game design, neuroscience and happiness psychology. Understanding online networks, network literacy, will be critical.

Globally connected world

We have been hearing about globalization for years, and it will continue to be a driver of changes in work in the future. According to the report, organizations cannot be satisfied with just having a presence in India, China and other developing countries, they must integrate that presence into their organization in order to remain competitive.

Taken with the “superstructured organizations” driver above, an increase in global interconnectivity will drive the need to workers competent across cultures, skilled in virtual collaboration and able to adapt in a rapidly changing environment.

Overall Future Work Skills 2020 report paints a picture of a challenging future for workers and organizations, but it also provides a road map of skills that we should be developing and nurturing now in order to be effective and employed in the future. 2020 is not that far away.

Twitter Is Not The Internet

Do people understand difference between a platform and the tools or services built on that platform? A recent article on the Atlantic Cities website suggests some don’t.
The article is about a study that suggests Twitter actually reinforces the power of place rather than making distance irrelevant in building community.The study is actually pretty interesting, but the Atlantic Cities article about the study implies the findings about Twitter networks apply to the entirety of the Internet. Here’s a quote from the article, ” Many predicted the rise of the Internet and of social media would annihilate distance and overcome the constraints of place by allowing people to communicate and build virtual communities. But the fact of the matter is Twitter actually works with and reinforces the power of place.”
The author assigns the findings of a study of Twitter networks to the Internet and social media as a whole. Twitter is simply a service built on the platform of the Internet. It is not the Internet. While Twitter may fall under the difficult to define term “social media,” it is not representative of all social media.
If we assume what is true about Facebook is true about the Internet as a whole, we fail to recognize the difference between a platform and the tools built on that platform. If we assign the traits of Pinterest to all social tools, we fail to distinguish between a category and the items that fall within that category.

"Let me draw you a diagram" - courtesy Devon Persing, used under CC BY-NC-SA: 2.0 license. (

If you are anything like me, you just thought, “Yeah, duh.” That’s the same reaction I had about 8 years ago, when I started teaching Basic English Skills at a small, 4-year college. I was talking with a much more experienced faculty member about what she thought I needed to cover in the course. She recommended spending quite a bit of time on helping the students distinguish the general from the specific. At the time I thought, “How could college freshman not know this?” When I got into the classroom, I found out they didn’t know it, and their writing was suffering as a result.
Because people have trouble distinguishing between the general and the specific, we get implications like the one in the aforementioned article, and I get requests from people to “teach me social media.” As the number of social tools and services continues to grow, sentences that start with “Social media is…” or “Social media does…” are becoming less true. The differences between social tools go beyond character limits and privacy policies.
Different tools create different kinds of social connections and different kinds of social networks. You can understand a specific tool like Twitter by studying social media only to the extent that you can understand American culture by studying Western civilization. To flourish in a specific social network, you need to understand that specific network.