How to Adapt to the Radically Changing Workplace, with Heather McGowan


Exclusive Interview with: Heather McGowan

Globally-known futurist Heather McGowan helps business and academic leaders prepare their people and organizations for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The sought-out speaker, writer, and consultant specializes in learning agility, a skill-set that’s indispensable for success in future markets. Ranked as LinkedIn’s “Number One Voice Globally for Education”, McGowan’s clients range from startups to Fortune 500s like Autodesk and BD Medical.

In the third industrial revolution education was analogous to downloading a single function application that was sufficient for your career arc. Now the change rate is faster while the career arc is longer so you need to focus on the underlying operating system and its ability to run many applications—because that is the future of work—learning and adapting through many work experiences.

SPEAKING.COM: What are the most important changes happening in the way we learn and work that people need to know about?

MCGOWAN: We are moving from the third to the fourth industrial revolution, which is a shift from set expertise-based occupations built from stored knowledge to portfolio-based careers grounded in learning agility and adaptability. In this transition, we can no longer rely on the old model of transferring codified knowledge and predetermined skills to create a deployable workforce. We must develop a workforce driven by purpose and passion to fuel the required life-long learning with highly developed uniquely human skills such as empathy, collaboration, creativity, and judgment, armed with digital and computational literacies and the ability to rapidly learn and adapt.

The simple analogy for this transition that seems to resonate most with individuals is the difference between an application that runs on your phone and the operating system itself that allows all applications to run. In the third industrial revolution, education was analogous to downloading a single function application that was sufficient for your career arc. Now the change rate is faster while the career arc is longer so you need to focus on the underlying operating system and its ability to run many applications—because that is the future of work—learning and adapting through many work experiences.

SPEAKING.COM: How can workers prepare for this paradigm shift in the job market?

MCGOWAN: I believe it really comes down to identity. If you define yourself entirely by what you do today, you may be trapped in that definition tomorrow when conditions change, potentially rendering that identity obsolete.

I believe that individuals need to move from titles to taglines. Titles tell you what one does today while taglines tell you what they can do through many titles—and, more importantly, why they do it. This is a shift from focusing on what you do (title or role) to how (your unique abilities and enabling capabilities) and your why (your purpose, your passion, your motivational spark).

Identity is tightly tied to resilience. A joint study by the University of East Anglia and the What Works Center for Wellbeing in England found that recovering from job loss can take twice as long as recovering from the loss of a primary relationship. An identity bestowed by a third party via a title or credential is left fragile by that third party, where an identity that is internally validated and adaptive is more resilient to change.

Where it was once sufficient to focus on “doing a good job”, now one must understand how the entity they work for creates value and, more specifically, how they contribute to that value creation.

SPEAKING.COM: What can people do to develop an agile mindset?

MCGOWAN: First, agile learning is a mindset as opposed to a skill set. In the future of work, skills will be added and deleted like applications on your phone. A mindset that is steeped in learning agility and adaptability will enable you to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

An agile learning mindset is comprised of three parts:

1. Agency – the understanding that learning is your responsibility.

2. Learning agility – the ability to learn and adapt which comes from knowing yourself and your learning styles, combined along with uniquely human skills that are difficult to automate such as empathy, creativity, judgment, and social intelligence.

3. A value creation or entrepreneurial outlook that seeks to add value.

Where it was once sufficient to focus on “doing a good job”, now one must understand how the entity they work for creates value and, more specifically, how they contribute to that value creation.

SPEAKING.COM: What do you think companies’ roles should be in equipping employees for the future of work?

MCGOWAN:Whether individuals in the future engage in work as employees, consultants, or contingent workers, it is the best interest of an organization to make talent development their number one objective. We once defined companies by their outputs, notably brand and products/services. That worked well when the change rate was slower and products, services, and business models lasted much longer. Now with accelerated change, we must focus on the inputs, which are culture and capacity.

Simply put, culture is the operating principles of an organization expressed externally as the brand. Capacity is the organization’s ability to respond to changes and challenges. Capacity is an ever-expanding set of capabilities. Products and services are evidence of capacity. For example, if you look at the top 5 companies today by market capitalization – Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Alphabet (parent company of Google) – they are all digital companies, but upon closer inspection, they are all learning companies. Everything they produce and sell as some form of a product is merely a data enabled vehicle for learning. They win because they learn faster than their competition.

It is not about the Sisyphean task of hiring the latest skill set while firing the outdated capabilities. We have hit a change curve too fast and steep for that model to work. It is now about screening talent for learning agility and adaptability and communicating that learning is part of work. Those who learn fastest will win.

No matter how sophisticated the tool, it is just a tool. Tools need humans for meaningful value creation.

SPEAKING.COM: What are your thoughts on human labor becoming obsolete due to advances in AI and robotics?

MCGOWAN: Certain types of human tasks will be outsourced to history as they always have been. We have seen a decline in both physical and cognitive routine labor since the 1980s. What is different this time is rather than technology tools assisting cognitive tasks, technology will soon replace routine cognitive tasks.

This does not mean technology will consume jobs but rather advances in technology will reshape jobs. Individuals will need to think differently about their contributions and with each task relinquished to technology, we must reach up or across to learn new skills and use technology to extend human potential. No matter how sophisticated the tool, it is just a tool. Tools need humans for meaningful value creation.

SPEAKING.COM: NPR reported this year that 1 in 5 American workers are contract workers. Many economists predict that ratio will rise to 1 in 2 within the next decade. What are the implications for the future of social structures and public services in a society where so many people are working without benefits and job security?

MCGOWAN: Over the past few of decades we have shifted risk from the entity to the individual. For example, the defined benefit of a pension became the defined contribution of a 401 (k). Technology has enabled unprecedented freedom of space and time but this flexibility has not always been met with sufficient security.

I believe we need to unbundle and reconstruct the social safety net so that individuals become free to engage with multiple entities and entities become free from carrying costs of labor when it is not needed or not productive. In order for this to work, we need a robust social safety net that provides health care, retirement planning and benefit pathways, risk mitigation through some type of unemployment benefits, and a very robust system or systems for life-long learning. Keeping a broad and stable network of highly trained talent is in our collective best interest.

SPEAKING.COM: How are other countries preparing for this coming shift in work and education?

MCGOWAN: Some are ahead of us on universal healthcare and access to education, and that certainly gives them the advantage to be more nimble. We tend to look at old indicators like education levels or education test scores and while it is true we need more workers with higher skills and experiences, we may be tracking all the wrong academic metrics as most focus on predetermined skills. That which is easy to measure may also be easy to automate and we may see a decline in value as technology advances into cognitive domains. I would seek to see who leads in creativity, adaptability, and entrepreneurial behaviors.

SPEAKING.COM: What steps can higher education institutes take to prepare students for the future work scene?

MCGOWAN: I have worked for more than a decade on this very challenge. Higher education needs to move past the codification of existing skills and predetermined knowledge to focus on creating agile and adaptable individuals with high learning agility and entrepreneurial behaviors. I believe it is less about anyone skill set and more and more about developing enabling capabilities and a sense of agency such that individuals understand they are responsible for life-long learning.

Most higher education institutions are stuck in the credentialing business focused on throughput and rankings. What we really need are higher education institutions that seek to be part of a robust system of lifelong learning rather than targeting 18 to 22-year-olds primarily for static credentials. This will require partnerships with industry, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies to entirely new business models with broader levels of access and shorter lengths of engagement.

The current model of higher education where they treat students like a customer (student) for four years and a cash register (alumni giving) for the balance does not work now and will not work into the future.

SPEAKING.COM: How do you think our educational system will change within the next 10 to 20 years?

MCGOWAN: I believe we will have fewer individual institutions competing with each other and more networks of institutions through mergers, alliances, and, of course, closures. The new ecosystem that will emerge will include corporations and nonprofits. I hope individuals will interface with this system more like a gym membership where you visit frequently to stay in cognitive shape. The current model of higher education where they treat students like a customer (student) for four years and a cash register (alumni giving) for the balance does not work now and will not work into the future. The academies have a great deal to offer but they need to shift their mindset away from solely conferring degrees and credentialing existing knowledge transfers to focusing on enabling life-long learning with open and broad partnerships.

SPEAKING.COM: Could you tell us about the book you’re currently writing?

MCGOWAN: Chris Shipley and I met in 2015 in Australia where we were both speaking on different aspects of the future of work. Since then, we have been writing and speaking together, bringing together our complimentary perspectives on that future. Chris brings her deep history in Silicon Valley startup culture and I bring my experiences bridging talent development from academia and industry.

We both agree that the future of work is learning and adapting, which requires a tectonic shift at the entity and a molecular level change in the individuals. We are collecting those perspectives and a catalog of writing and thinking into a concise book for business leaders who are guiding their teams to the future of work. Our book will be a quick read grounded in single frame visuals to help the readers understand the essential context of the change and how this time it is truly different. Leading in the future of work will require a focus on uniquely human skills augmented by rapidly advancing technological capabilities to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges.

To bring futurist and future of work speaker Heather McGowan to your organization, please contact Michael Frick at: Mike@Speaking.com

© SPEAKING.com, published on September 30, 2018

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