The future workplace would be one filled with a whole raft of new career opportunities, according to a recent roundtable on Digital Economy Skills.
At the roundtable, co-hosted by The Australian Financial Review and DeakinCo., there was agreement about the need for Australians to retrain and reskill for the future, but Telstra group executive human resources Alexandra Badenoch best summed up the general consensus when she said it was all "about the creation of new opportunities".
"You can get very bogged down with everything is going to go or change, but with every major shift we've seen [in history] whole new rafts of jobs come to life," Badenoch said.
"This is one of those times, but our optimism must be based on action rather than hope. We actually have to invest the time and the focus on supporting the transition and not thinking we're just going to wake up one day and people will be different and have new skills. We've actually got to invest in it right now."
For Badenoch, we really only have a partial idea of where technology is heading and what the future will look like, so the responsibility of business is to create a more agile workforce and to help people look at problems differently.
"We have to teach people a way of working and collaborating together and then they can work on any subject matter because we've taught them how, not what," she said.
The idea of a more collaborative workforce was discussed in detail at the roundtable and mirrors the thoughts of MIT Sloan School of Management's Professor Thomas Malone.
Malone, who wrote a seminal paper about the rise of digital communication in business back in 1987 and also presciently wrote on the future of work in 2004, recently released a new book titled Superminds: The Surprising Power of People and Computers Thinking Together.
In the book Malone posits the theory that collaborative human thinking is superior to a super computer, the reason being today's artificial intelligence really is very specialised. Whether it is beating a person at chess or building a piece of furniture, it really only has a specialised task. Malone says a small child can converse more sensibly than today's AI systems across a broad range of topics.
In a nutshell, he believes we have always been surrounded by "superminds" involving humans collectively working and thinking together to achieve a goal. The beauty of the supermind in the digital age is "we can now connect the amazingly powerful information processor we call brains to each other – and to computers – in rich new ways and vastly larger scales than ever before".
Yet there is a kicker. We do need to ensure we bring the right people, with the right skills, together to collaborate. In this instance, Malone emphasises the importance of social intelligence rather than just putting the smartest people together.
In Malone's book, studies found that the groups in which many of the members were high on social intelligence and could communicate clearly with others were, on average, more collectively intelligent than other groups.
"The second important factor we found was the degree to which group members participated about equally in conversation. When one or two people dominated the conversation, the group was, on average, less intelligent than when participation was more evenly distributed."
And finally, Malone's studies found groups with a slightly higher percentage of women were, on the whole, better performing.
Interestingly, this emphasis on social intelligence corresponds with the current thinking about promoting softer skills in the workplace.
Roundtable participant, LinkedIn managing director Australia and New Zealand Matt Tindale, said the skills of the future very much revolve around so-called soft skills like collaboration.
For Tindale, measurement of soft skills can be a tricky proposition, but he believes there are "a number of ways" to do it.
"We often talk about micro-credentials, which is actually a great way of doing it, and you get credentialed for those soft skills," Tindale said.
"You can look at employee surveys and really track things moved by soft skills, like collaboration and teamwork, and therefore measure the effectiveness of them."
Boston Consulting Group's global practice leader, digital and technology transformation in the public sector, Miguel Carrasco, said technical domain skills are never going to be replaced. They may change over time, but the demand for expertise will always be high.
"What we're seeing in the broader economy is an elevation of some of the soft skills as greater, if not equal importance. We've always recruited for soft skills so our recruiting has always been for things like effectiveness and impact, teamwork, and collaboration, problem solving, leadership, communication. So when you go through our interview process, that's what we're assessing people for," Carrasco said.
Moreover, these softer skills can be taught and promoted, he said. Carrasco suggests we are seeing the deconstruction of jobs in the digital age.
"The skills have always been there, but they've always been a defined set of tasks. And the problem is people have identified with a job, not with their skills. To reduce some of the anxiety out there about the economic transition and transformation that we're going through, [we can be] helping people navigate the pathway from the skills they've got today to the jobs of the future, whatever they might look like.
"Most people will find a viable pathway to the future. The broader policy question is how do we manage this transition as smoothly as possible."
Telstra's Badenoch believes we will create new opportunities, but we will have to come to terms with working differently.
"I do think freelancing, and job sharing, and a whole bunch of different arrangements are going to come to life in our world, which might actually be pretty good. It is forcing us to understand transferability," she said.
"It's about establishing pathways for people and helping them with their future careers."
This article was originally published by The Australian Financial Review on 26 July 2018.