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“People are now having to work together in very elaborate ways in virtual environments.”
Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School
The digital forces shaping the future of work
Image: Harry Borden
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The digital forces shaping the future of work

Kenny MacIver – October 2014
Technology is rapidly redefining the way we all work, observes Lynda Gratton, enabling new forms of collaboration across traditional business boundaries.

• Don’t miss Lynda Gratton keynoting at Fujitsu’s ActivateNow digital event, 14-15 October 2020 — Register (by region) here

There are several trends that will profoundly reshape the context and practice of work in coming decades, argues Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at the London Business School. These include the rebalancing of globalized markets for goods and labor; dramatically changing demographics; the widening of skills gaps; the demise of middle-skill work; and the rise in the importance of talent clusters. But one other stands out as having the most profound impact on the way work is done and, indeed, as underpinning all of these: IT-enabled hyperconnectivity.

“Over the past five years we’ve seen major disruptions to work, and the driver is technology,” says Gratton, who also heads the Future of Work Consortium, a global business community that maps out what work will look like in the future and how corporations should be adapting their practices in anticipation.

Behind IT’s influence is the exponential growth in processing power, the rise of big data and the connecting of almost everyone and (ultimately) everything to networks. “To watch that happening has been the most fascinating thing that I’ve done over the past half decade. It really is astounding how fast technology is changing work.”

The distribution of employment activity is now fuelled by IT, she highlights. “Work itself is changing because anything that’s easy to do can be outsourced to another country where it can be done cheaper and faster,” she says. “And increasingly it’s being done by a piece of advanced technology.” That trend will only grow as more skilled work is taken on by artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

“If you combine AI with big data then what you’re already beginning to see is that some of the work that we thought only clever, expensive people could do is being taken over,” she observes. “We’re already seeing what economists have called a ‘hollowing out of the middle’ as lots of jobs that were semi-skilled have disappeared — forever.”

One upshot is that people are having to spend more time learning to engage in complex and specialist jobs — to move from being a ‘shallow generalist’ to a ‘serial master.’ In her best-seller, The Shift, Gratton talks about three sorts of networks that individuals need to cultivate for future success:

• Be part of a posse
The way that people learn and grow their expertise is by being part of an immediate group with the same passion for a specialist area.

• Tap into a big ideas crowd
The problem with being highly specialized and spending all your time with like-minded people, says Gratton, is you tend to miss some of the big ideas that might be floating around. The solution is to also foster connections with a number of diverse groups that can be sources for serendipity.

• Build a regenerative network
With an increasingly longer working lifespan, individuals need to learn to regenerate their networks of professional and personal contacts as they change jobs/careers/personal circumstance/etc.
Collaborative modes

Not only is technology changing the work opportunities for individuals, it also having a huge impact on tasks undertaken within communities of workers, Gratton argues. “We used to think that being really clever and innovative on your own was all that was required. But actually what we’re beginning to realize is the challenges now are often to do with how people from different disciplines get together and share ideas.

“People are now having to work together in very elaborate ways in virtual environments, and technology is making that a lot easier,” she says.

“One of the emerging challenges for leaders is they realize some of the best ideas are going to be outside of their company.”

The phenomenal rate of change presents a full agenda for CIOs. To support new ways of working within and between organizations — and ultimately create competitive edge — they need to apply an array of the advanced and robust technologies, from collaboration tools and corporate social networking to innovation networks

“One of the emerging challenges for leaders is that they realize some of the best ideas are going to be generated outside of their company and they have to reach out and find them. That’s a difficult task.”

Indeed, every year Gratton asks leaders at the 40-plus companies around the world who make up the Future of Work Consortium about their greatest organizational concern, currently and going forward.

Year after year, one answer persists: collaboration. “They struggle to build collaborative structures where people are able to share ideas across and between organizations,” she highlights.

“The truth, for most of us, is that the easiest thing to do is to work on our own and then at the very last minute, like a patchwork, just sew it all together. But what I think is so really exciting about complex collaboration is it requires us to work together right from the beginning to make it happen,” she maintains.
First published
October 2014
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About: Lynda Gratton
Professor of management practice at London Business School, head of the Future of Work Research Consortium and best-selling business author, Lynda Gratton focuses on people-centric strategies for transforming companies.

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