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Is your business a go-to or has-been?

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Does your business have the capability to adapt to technological change? Or are you at risk of being left behind?

What's the definition of an optimist?

An accordion player with a pager.

Not only is that joke old, it’s technologically obsolete. And hilarious.

We’ve all seen technology transform the blue-collar employment landscape in recent years. But if you think your job is safe because you sit at a desk, think again. Digital advances and artificial intelligence are poised to disrupt the world of white-collar work as well.

As with any disruption, there are upsides and downsides. The difference, in our company and career, can be as simple as an attitude shift.

Think back to 2007. Who knew what a “smart” phone was? Ten years later, it’s an indispensable device. Telephone operators? Gone. Payphone repair technicians? Waiting for an emergency page about a service call.

We all used to spend time trying to find a payphone to make a call. Now we use that time to accomplish more important tasks. And if those operators and technicians future-proofed their careers, hopefully they went on to more rewarding work.

And for your company, the future is now. You must look up and decide if you’re a go-to or a has-been business. And understand that with either choice there will be pain.

Uniquely human

The white-collar workforce has been trained to be problem-solvers, to use tools and techniques to find solutions. As computer power increases, algorithms will increasingly be able to arrive at better conclusions in a thousandth of the time, with fewer errors.

This statement, and the future-shocking news reports we see about robots and technologies, should scare you. But as a company leader, the fear should not paralyze you, but rather motivate you to embrace the valuable opportunities unfolding. 

Computers can’t duplicate our capacity for right-brain thinking. Human skill, and humanity, can find new applications and marketplace opportunities, but only if we’re looking. Only if we put aside fear of change and press into the thrill of progress.

So while STEM training (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) will still be important, we’ve reached the stage where we also need people to leverage that technology to improve the human condition. And to do that we’re going to need liberal arts folks in the boardroom who are tech-savvy.

Google is famous for hiring this sort of person, often called the smart creative. These are people who are more than simply efficient on one discipline, but also playful, passionately involved, and personally driven to keep themselves on their toes. More importantly, they attract other people like them who start collaboration and innovation.

This is the kind of white-collar worker whose job is not in danger.

And that’s the kind of talent your organisation should be recruiting—if you want to be a go-to company.

The same future-flexibility also applies to learning, and how we view hiring based on education. Imagine a time when ten percent of an employee’s learning will come from reading books, articles, and curricula. Twenty percent of education will occur from just-in-time training. And seventy percent happens in on-the-job, experiential learning.

For future-proof companies, that time is already here.

And eventually, the educational establishment will recognise, We don’t have to teach you the multiplication tables anymore, we need to teach what you can do with the latest calculator!

The status quo

We have a corporate and educational infrastructure in the Western world that’s been successful for decades, so it’s natural that such a system would resist change. But change it must. And change you must.

Because the pace of change is accelerating, the ability for competing companies, in competing countries, to leapfrog us overnight is a fact of business life. The same is true for competing leaders and employees. Among the most vulnerable sectors is the service industry, where tasks traditionally handled by call centers can be performed by robots, and the banking and insurance industries, where trading and forecasting can now easily be done by machines.

Healthcare is one area in which opportunities are growing, rather than shrinking. As medical technology improves, the number of people receiving diagnoses continues to increase, but the ability to provide care to them, through doctors, nurse practitioners, trained psychologists and others is not keeping up.

The new organisational culture

It’s not only the workers who will have to adapt to the new technology-driven environment. So will leaders. Leaders of the past were rewarded for providing stability and certainty, but now we’re in an environment where we must be proactive about change and uncertainty.

Innovation is moving such a rapid pace that it defies standardisation. By the time we incorporate a new technology throughout our company, it’s already a has-been. This reality requires an entirely fresh approach to leadership, combining technology and humanity to create a future company—and future world—we want to enjoy.

A future-proof culture is the most important asset any organisation can have, regardless of market sector. Just as ‘smart creatives’ tend to attract other ‘smart creatives’, stone-age hierarchical leaders tend to attract Neanderthals.

The new organisational culture must be open, engaged, and focused on helping people get better. I know we all claim to “celebrate failure,” in the workplace, but what we really celebrate is the learning that comes from failure.

As you ping-pong between the pain and possibilities of the future, realise that you have a choice between being a go-to or a has-been. How you got here is not how you’ll succeed from here.

The future doesn’t only belong to the young; it belongs to the young in attitude. Are you wearing optimism or a pager?

Linda Sharkey

By Linda Sharkey

Dr Sharkey is an author, radio show host and founding member of the Marshall Goldsmith Group.

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