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Communication and the Work of the Future

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Sep 16, 2019 1:10:30 PM

A task force commissioned by MIT just released “The Work of the Future: Shaping Technology and Institutions,” a preliminary analysis of future workplace trends. Emerging technologies are already reshaping today’s workplace; the accelerating pace of automation will trigger much deeper change. The report addresses several threads of public pessimism directed towards a world of diminished employment, where automation has replaced many jobs currently done by humans.

Experts vary in their predictions on how much automation will displace workers. The MIT report takes a cautious approach and assumes a range of scenarios. While automation may create a world of even starker wealth gaps than we see today, it may also unlock opportunities for people to work more collaboratively with a much deeper level of human connection with higher living standards, better working conditions, and improved well-being. 

For the more optimistic scenario to come to pass, individuals, companies, educational institutions, government, and non-governmental organizations will all need to readjust to the impacts of automation. Automation may replace some jobs, but it will also become an enabling tool for other jobs, and will create new, unforeseen roles. 

Within Higher Education and organizational learning, we are already seeing several of these shifts.  

First, “automation has profoundly shifted the comparative advantage of human labor from the physical to the cognitive domain, and this has gradually but inexorably raised the formal reasoning demands and educational requirements of most jobs” in areas such as design, data analysis, services, and management and leadership.

We already see the many ways that workers need sophisticated communication skills to collaborate and move cross-functional projects forward. This is especially true of engineers and data analysts. As people build and work alongside smarter and smarter machines, we need increasingly sophisticated communication tools to work with those machines. The Story2 Moments Method® is a science-based technology, designed to address this problem: teaching the core human skills of speaking, writing, and storytelling and doing so at scale. 

Take for instance, data analysts: as the amount of data increases exponentially, sophisticated storytelling skills are required to manage data and create meaning--and recommended actions--for the community. Similarly, in our work, engineers have identified the need to build improved communication skills within product development teams to create products that work across siloed business functions, and across linguistic, cultural, and geographic borders. We have found that clear stories about shared purpose and progress help unlock product team success. 

Second, “current and impending waves of automation will disproportionately burden workers without a four-year college degree.” Because of this, alternate education and training options will become increasingly important.

Community colleges and apprenticeship programs will come to play a bigger role, and workers will likely attend shorter programs more often and concurrently with work. Higher Ed will need to shift, in other words, to something more like continuous adult learning.  

One essential ingredient of these new, shorter programs will be a focus on enduring, high-level skills such as creativity, critical thinking, and communication. The biggest challenge facing Higher Ed is how to retool Higher Ed itself for adult workers requiring skills to master continuously changing work environments. In order to serve students entering an automated workforce, the new Higher Ed will need to teach deep cognitive and interpersonal skills that are not subject to automation.

As the report states, “given their scale, their ability to adapt offerings to local market needs, and their ongoing engagement with non-baccalaureate adults at all career stages, community colleges could play an even more central role in providing skills and training.” We have seen this already in our work with LaGuardia Community College, where the most talented students are balancing and training for a variety of different options at once: more core “general education” skills, specific training programs, internships, and jobs side-by-side. 

Third, online learning will evolve to support the changing needs of students entering the workforce. Remember that we are still in the early days of the online learning revolution. With instruction, “realizing the full potential of a major new technology almost always means reengineering the way work is done to harness the strengths and circumvent the limitations of the new tool.” The MIT report highlights that changing workforce needs will put pressure on online learning, and as a result, new hybrid forms that integrate online and classroom learning will emerge.

We have seen exactly that scenario with Story2. As we have evolved our online story-building platform, we have increasingly found that the most effective approach for students is a combination of self-paced online courses, instructor-guided online workshops, and one-on-one feedback and coaching. These teaching modalities are not mutually exclusive. They become building blocks of a new multi-faceted and community-based learning system. By scaling that system, we are on the road to something that can teach the widest variety of learners and the widest range of skills, including special needs and newly-required skills. 

Finally, learning in the future automated workplace will happen continuously rather than in one-off degree programs, certification programs, courses, or lessons. In today’s adult learning environment, a “plethora of new bootcamps, badges, and other models for conferring non-degree credentials have been launched in the last few years. While some of these forms of continuous learning will help workers upskill or reskill to compensate for the ways that automation affects their jobs, others will become a natural extension of how people work.” People will move seamlessly between “doing mode” and “learning mode,” and as a result, they will need platforms that allow them to sustain their skills. 

This continuous learning becomes especially important for skills that require sophisticated cognitive and interpersonal intelligence. For example, with StoryBuilder, Story2 has integrated both forms of learning. StoryBuilder provides lessons for applying storytelling to specific scenarios such as mastering job interviews or improving recruitment skills. It also provides a platform for learners to return again and again to build stories that help them further their goals by connecting with other people. Story2 learners can progress through discrete courses, they can return to the platform to find and shape other stories, and they can access both automated and human instruction at any point in the process. This fluidity supports the goal of continuous learning of storytelling as a vital communication tool.

The MIT “Future of Work” report highlights provocative suggestions for how public institutions, private-sector institutions, and industry should respond to changing needs. The report conveys only the initial findings of its authors, and I’m looking forward to seeing more on the science of learning and the role it can play in creating a better future workplace.