Human Resources

Preparing for jobs that don't exist yet: Academic perspective

Over the last year or so I’ve attended a number of events where the challenge of preparing for jobs that don’t exist yet has been topic of the day. To get some more perspective I posed three simple questions to range of different professionals. Carsten Sørensen the London School of Economics’ Department of Management and Kristine de Valck of the HEC Paris Executive MBA answer below from an academic point of view.


Carsten Sørensen Associate Professor of Information Systems and Innovation, and lecturer on the Masters in Innovation Systems and Digital Innovation and the London School of Economics’ Department of Management.

There has always been an ebb and flow of jobs and skills. Are things really worse now or is this hype?

It is difficult to classify major shifts as either better or worse without asking for whom? One of the strongest shifts we’re currently seeing is a move from the shorter exchanging of goods transactions, towards building ongoing relationships based on service-journeys. However, as it is far easier (but much less rewarding) to buy and sell milk from each other than it is to be married, we are further challenged in trying to make these ‘marriages’ work.

As service journeys are complex mutual adaptations between supply and demand, the traditional model does not work. Furthermore, as technology becomes more advanced, and as competition puts pressure on firms to be endlessly more effective, there is a constant need for new models of engagement. Over the past decades, one of the most popular ways companies and customers have “been married” is through contact centres. These have, for many reasons, not really worked. The most recent incarnation of this puts the customer directly in charge of the service delivery through automated self-service - smartphone app stores are a good example of this, as are the self-service checkouts in supermarkets.

This raises the important question of what new jobs will be created if the combination of automation and self-service then also automates listening to changes in customer needs and directly engages with them in doing the work? The threat to employment is, in my view, not primarily in automation alone, but in the combination of automation and self-service, allowing for the mutual adaptation between customer and service to happen without the engagement of others. When I studied at university in the early 80s the common wisdom was that Denmark as a country could not live off the Danes cutting each other’s hair. It turned out that most countries can make a lot of money from services. London is perhaps the best example. We are now faced with the challenge of how to make a living from cutting our own hair. 

What practical steps can companies take to prepare for the jobs that don’t exist yet?

The key to this will be understanding how best to harness the powers of digitalisation and the exponential scaling of computational capabilities in a context where there is a high degree of distributed connectedness. Decentralised access to powerful digital technologies (which is already happening due to the near 100% adoption of smartphones in many markets) creates new possibilities for emerging behaviour and radical innovations. Many are, of course, now working on blockchain technologies to ensure trust in such arrangements. But, more generally, embracing decentralisation is essential. Mostly because we intuitively do not understand it well. Not unlike the former DDR politician Erich Honecker, and many others like him, many companies may suddenly find themselves on shaky ground when the sands of digitally distributed computational scaling suddenly shifts. So companies should engage in comprehensively understanding how the forces of digitalisation may both be an opportunity and a threat to their businesses and sectors.

If digital decentralisation represents an opportunity, then it may be easier for smaller outfits to utilise it. However, if increased centralisation is an opportunity, perhaps one of the digital superstar companies will be better positioned to do it (and maybe even give it away for free). Digitalisation seems to pull everything to the edges. Starting a company these days requires a laptop, a great idea, and enough time to find the right amount of capital. However, equally, global matchmakers and private infrastructure owners have been able to establish controlling empires in a very short span of time. These both provide the important infrastructures for innovation but also set the rules and, in some cases, extract significant rent. We do not yet know how the combination of decentralised disruption and regulation may challenge these superstars, but for all organisations constantly balancing centralisation and decentralisation will be a significant one

What does all this mean for teenagers who are currently putting the building blocks in place for their future careers?

We should always care deeply about those who will have a greater stake in shaping the future. In my view we could very well be in for a lengthy period of industrial reconfiguration. One of the main challenges will be for those with strong expectations for a stable working life with long-term employment in one organisation. I see with our students here at LSE each year develop a growing interest in spending their lives on doing something that gives meaning to life, and to experiment with less reliance on a career in large companies. The ability to engage in flexible and ever-shifting working arrangements will certainly be at a premium, but will also be a riskier endeavour than the secure employment of the past. 


Kristine de Valck is academic director of the HEC Paris Executive MBA advanced certificate in Leading Digital Transformation

There has always been an ebb and flow of jobs and skills. Are things really worse now or is this hype?

There definitely is a taste of hype around this issue, although all hype holds a fraction of truth at its core. We are living in rapidly changing times. The technological developments are occurring at such a rate that we have a hard time wrapping our minds around exactly what all of these developments mean, and how we need to react to them, as we are linear thinkers. It is this uncertainty that makes us believe that everything is fundamentally changing.

However, in spite of these uncertainties, much remains the same: humanity still consists of flesh and blood and emotions and biases. There is evidence that our neurological wiring is adapting to our changing environment (and that is good as otherwise we would have been extinct centuries ago!), and that also applies to how we feel, think and act in our jobs. Although to end with another philosophical question; the notion of a 'job' – or at least what it currently means – may also soon become obsolete. 

What practical steps can companies take to prepare for the jobs that don’t exist yet?

Most of all, we need people who are able to adapt and this should start in business education. As part of the Executive MBA’s module in Leading Digital Transformation, we work with Hyper Island (a digital transformation training company) which teaches our participants to be 'fluid', i.e., fluid in their mind sets, fluid in their attitudes, fluid in believing what is possible, and fluid in their future plans and projections. As change is fast and constant, businesses need people who are able to feel, think, and act fast and flexibly. Thus, companies are tasked with not only finding and creating new jobs, but empowering people to adapt these jobs today, and again tomorrow, and again the day after tomorrow in order to keep up with the pace of change around you. Companies should be wary of letting people get comfortable in routines. Instead, better reward risk taking, celebrate and share failures so that the companies’ entire eco-system grows together, support and encourage connections and sharing. People will do most of these things naturally if the context and conditions allow for it. Remember that we as humans are an adaptable and curious species. Thus, companies need to rethink their management systems, including the incentive systems to give that little extra nudge. 

What does all this mean for teenagers who are currently putting the building blocks in place for their future careers?

For the successful construction of the future we need to work together, among generations, cultures and across continents. Thus, as much as the older generations try to understand today compared to yesterday, I believe that the younger generations need to try to understand yesterday to build the future. Even if they decide to do everything differently, they need to know the baseline from which they'll determine their deviation. I believe that anything that helps teenagers to understand 'the other' and 'the past' will be beneficial for giving direction to how they shape tomorrow in collaboration with the current workforce. 


Also read:

Can we prepare for the jobs that don’t exist yet?


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