Navigating Automation, Inter-Generational Knowledge Transfer, and the Future of Work

Navigating Automation, Inter-Generational Knowledge Transfer, and the Future of Work

September 2021:

Navigating Automation, Inter-Generational Knowledge

Transfer, and the Future of Work

Work is evolving, and companies must pivot if they’re going to ride the wave of change.

As society comes out of COVID’s first year, employees and employers are getting a good sense of what the future of work may look like. The COVID pandemic accelerated workplace trends like digitization and the need for greater flexibility around remote and hybrid work options by five or more years, and experts are saying that while employers are feeling the urgent need to adjust to these trends right now, they should also be aware that these shifts could create issues for years to come if businesses don’t take steps right now to prepare. For instance, there are currently five generations in the workforce. How will companies facilitate and manage the incredibly important inter-generational transfer of knowledge in the next decade, especially as the very nature of work changes due to technology innovation and adoption—not to mention shifts in demographics and even societal values?

Bill Kerr is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and the co-director of Harvard’s Managing the Future of Work initiative, a project that considers how technology changes and demographic changes are reshaping the workplace. “One important manifestation of these trends will be a fight for talent given rapid changes in required skills, increased competition across sectors for digital talent, greater care responsibilities that workers will have, etc.,” Kerr says. “COVID accelerated these trends by 5-7 years, and few organizations expected to need to scramble as much as they are right now for workers—signing bonuses, promises of continued or enhanced flexibility, etc. The imbalances will persist for decades to come due to their structural roots, and employers will need to think much more carefully about their access to and nurturing of talent. We are still in the early parts of the future of work journey, and the taste we are getting right now will become much stronger.”

Meagan Johnson, a generational expert, speaker, and author, suggests the COVID pandemic has already proven to be a defining moment in younger generations’ careers. “Post- COVID, what I’m witnessing is that more and more of the younger generation—younger millennials, Generation Z—they’re having what I call a ‘middle-aged moment’ … where you start to question the choices you’ve made career-wise and asking yourself what is important,” Johnson says. “The younger generations have always put a priority on work/life balance. But now it’s going even a step further; it’s ‘I want my life to have meaning.’ Meaning that the companies I’m going to work for, the career path I’m going to be on, I want it to have significance beyond just my backyard.”

Going forward, the people who will make up the bulk of the workforce will be looking to join forces with employers that align with their personal values and ethical frameworks. They want to contribute to the bigger societal picture. “And they’re also going to look at how companies and organizations have responded to COVID and are responding to climate change and what has happened in the United States politically,” Johnson adds. “What are those organizations doing (about these issues), and how have they taken a stand?”

To enter the future of work, employers must understand that the generation coming in is different than the generation that’s currently at the helm. Companies must see the progress that’s been made in the last 18 months toward remote and hybrid work as exactly that—progress. They will need to make room for dispersed work models and new types of collaboration models that engage all generations and personality types, and they must leverage technology to facilitate these processes.

Facilitating the Future of Work

Jennifer Chang, HR knowledge advisor for the SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management), says remote work and flexible work arrangements increased exponentially during the pandemic out of necessity, but this has jumpstarted what will probably become a permanent trend as businesses realize they can be just as effective with a dispersed workforce. She says SHRM research has shown that remote-work arrangements will be a “talent magnet” in coming years and companies must view these arrangements as a long-term investment.

“The future of work will also look different from today as corporations adjust their business models to increase their focus on corporate social responsibility, a self-regulating business model that helps a company be socially accountable and conscious of the impact they are having on society, including economic, social, and environmental concerns,” Chang adds. “For instance, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the social justice protests that followed, many businesses are taking a hard look at their diversity, equity, and inclusion policies.”

Chang also says as the trend toward remote-work arrangements continues, businesses will need to find ways to utilize technology to help their employees stay connected and healthy at the same time. AI (artificial intelligence) is going to continue to be a big changemaker in the workplace. “Artificial intelligence will transform the workforce over the coming years as machines are replacing human judgement and thought, unlike repetitive tasks and manual labor like they did during the Industrial Revolution,” she explains.

Harvard Business School’s Kerr concurs, saying the path of technology is moving from routine to non-routine tasks, and this will shape work in the next decade. “Much of the 20th century was about technology taking on routine physical tasks, ranging from our capacity to move massive amounts of dirt to sophisticated advanced manufacturing,” Kerr explains. “The computing revolution in the second half of the 20th century then further unlocked routine cognitive tasks for automation. The business, workforce, and even political implications of these technology revolutions were profound. Today, advanced cognitive technologies and artificial intelligence increasingly take over non-routine cognitive tasks, ranging from performance marketing to fraud detection to identifying likely new drug candidates.”

Whereas the technologies for routine tasks mostly impacted workers in the lower and middle parts of the wage distribution, these new tasks that technology can take on tend to be in the upper part of the wage distribution. “Looking further out, advanced robotics will combine with artificial intelligence to allow technology to also take on non-routine physical tests,” Kerr adds. “Autonomous vehicles show this future point (driving as a non-routine physical task) and also highlight the challenges of bringing technology into the physical world for non-routine tasks compared to their initial applications for cognitive work.”

Garry Kasparov, an AI advocate, former world chess champion who battled the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in 1997, and author, says with very few exceptions, trends don’t run backwards, so the future of work will see more advances in the same directions that make work different today than it was yesterday. “That means more working with technology, including collaborating with increasingly intelligent AIs,” Kasparov says. “It means less physical labor, less routine work, fewer repetitive tasks that can be done better by machines. That means more time for humans to do what we’re best at, and that only we can do: be strategic, empathetic, and inspired.”

AI is already pervasive, Kasparov suggests, even if it’s not entirely obvious that this is true. “AI extends our minds, our ability to look ahead and to understand, the way a telescope extends our vision,” he says. “But it’s usually behind the scenes. Workers don’t see AI at the office—or home office these days—the way they would a shiny new machine. But it’s increasingly everywhere, like electricity or the internet.”

AI technologies will shape work by making previously difficult and complex things much easier. “Things that used to take months of coding by experts can now be done by an operator in a low-code environment, practically off the shelf in some cases,” Kasparov adds. “You look at a company like Appian … they make AI tools and apps that can be adapted quickly to just about anything. It’s not about suddenly, boom, everything is AI … it’s just faster and smarter, chipping away at the big, dreary problem of making business processes better.”

Of course, the costs of automation include job loss. “Job losses are a necessary evil as industries transform, and even if the future is bright, we shouldn’t be callous,” urges Kasparov. “Automation has always meant job loss, even the disappearance of a profession or class. The difference today is that the machines aren’t taking the jobs of manual laborers or unskilled service people but people with college educations and Twitter accounts. It wasn’t too hard to say good riddance to back-breaking jobs. It can take a generation to absorb the workforce, but we correctly see it as progress. That’s the main story, that despite all the panic in the mainstream in the moment, we keep growing, keep improving health, our leisure, our standard of living. Not despite automation, but because of it.”

AI and automation can also play a role in reskilling/upskilling workers to help them meet the changing demands of evolving jobs. AI and AR (augmented reality)-assisted tech can help bridge labor shortages. They can open doors for a larger pool of labor to access skilled trades sooner and with higher quality control. In fact, the ability to pass skills and knowledge to new and existing employees is going to be a key part of the future of work in the next decade, and technology will help make it happen.

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Upskilling, Reskilling, and Preserving Inter-Generational Knowledge

To prepare for the future of work, Aaron Elder, CEO and cofounder of Crelate, a provider of staffing and recruiting software, says companies must be first movers in developing corporate training, reskilling, and upskilling. “Traditional education systems are bloated and not living up to the promise for many,” he says. “Students entering the workforce with mountains of debt and no marketable skills are proof that traditional methods are failing.”

Elder encourages businesses to instill entrepreneurship and a growth mindset in every employee at every level. “Business and workers need to work together to adapt to change,” he says. “Workers, however, need to understand that the trend is to automate, and they must also be responsible for growing and changing with the times. ‘Embrace the change’ will become a mantra at successful organizations.”

Harvard Business School’s Kerr suggests organizations will need to devote extensive effort to upskilling and reskilling workers to prepare for the future of work. “Leaders can only transform their business for the future of work if they have first brought their employee base into the future of work,” he explains. “Due to the scale of the challenge and the tacit knowledge and firm-specific insights that incumbent workers hold, a naïve strategy to simply replace all the workers with new ones will fail. Additionally, the transformation that lies ahead is not a once-and-done-for task, but organizations instead need to develop processes to navigate and manage through multiple technology waves that we will experience.”

Future employers will focus much less on a static credential like a college degree and more on the aptitude and capacity of individuals to work with the company for the skillsets of the future. “Organizations need to share with employees their vision of the future skill needs of the organization, help the employees understand the steps that they need personally take to be aligned with these future roles, and provide the platform and resources for the employees to obtain those skills,” Kerr says. Companies don’t need to guarantee lifetime employment, but they should invest in employees who are motivated to be with them long term.

Crelate’s Elder says inter-generational knowledge transfer is something that must happen organically over time. “Technology should focus on fostering the relationships, empowering the people, and maximizing the time of everyone involved for this organic transfer to occur,” he says. “The push for hybrid and remote work situations will be hardest on new workers entering the workforce. Without face time, hallway conversations, breakout sessions, and over-the-shoulder support, new workers will struggle to make connections and forge relationships essential for success and inter-generational knowledge transfer.”

What’s more, automation may squelch roles that were traditionally a foot in the door. “There is value in ‘starting off in the mailroom,’ and businesses will struggle organically growing talent that fundamentally understands a business from the ground up without these kinds of opportunities,” warns Elder. “The lack of entry-level jobs also creates many more missed opportunities for businesses to earn the loyalty of a new generation of talent.”

Part of preparing for the future of work will be identifying what skill gaps need to close and who can bridge those gaps—a new generation of talent or existing workers, or both. Once companies identify those gaps, Meagan Johnson says they need to make career development opportunities available to everyone within the company and really lean into that investment—and that includes giving employees the time they need to develop those skills.

“Younger generations, when they’re looking for places to work, they are looking at organizations that invest in their employees,” Johnson says. “The younger generation wants to feel that ‘hey, you know what, my employer cares about me and my development,’ and part of that is (asking), ‘What is my employer doing to make sure that my skillset remains up to date?’”

To make sure that inter-generational knowledge transfer occurs, Johnson says companies need to make sure people are connecting and engaging with each other, even within dispersed work models, and they can do that through technology. “You just don’t want technology to alienate one another, and the alienation comes from how different generations perceive technology,” she explains. “But the beauty is that chat apps, Zoom, Teams allow us to engage with one another, and this (technology) also allows us to perform the work with a lot more flexibility, because it’s not really how you get the job done, it’s the quality of the work, and the quality of the work will remain high when we can have that inter-generational knowledge transfer.”

5 Impacts of AI and Automation on the Workforce

Economists Michael Rieley and Lindsey Ice at the U.S. BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) Division of Occupational Employment Projections share five industry-specific impacts of AI and automation technologies over the 2019-2029 projection period:

  1. Manufacturing has seen a long-term trend of employment decline, in part due to automation, and that trend is expected to continue for 2019-2029.
  2. Retail trade is affected by both automation technology (e.g., self-checkout), and competition from e-commerce, both of which lead to a projected employment decline for 2019-2029.
  3. Cable and other subscription programming; newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishers; travel arrangement and reservation services; and printing and related support activities also are projected to experience rapid employment declines due to technological change, though this is more due to competition from other industries, enabled by technology, rather than automation per se.
  4. The computer systems design and related services; management, scientific, and technical consulting services; and software publishing industries are expected to see a lot of the upside demand from this same factor.
  5. Employment growth in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) occupations is projected to grow more than twice as fast as non-STEM occupations from 2019-2029.

While companies certainly need to prepare themselves to adapt to rapid change, the best way to do that isn’t by buying faster computers, it’s finding new tools and training the workforce to use those new tools. “This is critical, because trying to adapt by hiring a whole new team every time the wind changes is desperate and also fails to retain institutional culture and knowledge,” adds Kasparov. “Older generations have a mountain of knowledge and perspective—years of intuition. They may also be some of your most creative people but have trouble expressing that creativity in a new environment.”

One of the keys to unlocking the future of work, then, is not to attempt what Kerr described as “a naïve strategy to simply replace all the workers with new ones,” because this will most certainly fall short of the goal line. Rather, businesses must look for ways to welcome change, embrace technology, upskill and reskill existing talent, attract new talent, and encourage the sharing of knowledge between the multiple, valuable generations that make up today’s dynamic, shifting workforce.

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