GUEST POST from Greg Satell
The late Clayton Christensen had a theory about “jobs to be done.” In his view, customers don’t buy products as much as they “hire” companies to do specific “jobs” for them. To be competitive, firms need to understand what that job is and how to do it well. In other words, no one wants a quarter-inch drill bit, they want a quarter-inch hole.
The same can be said for an entire society. We need certain jobs to be done and will pay handsomely for ones that we hold in high regard, even as we devalue others. Just as being the best blacksmith in town won’t earn you much of a living today, great coding skills wouldn’t do you much good in a medieval village.
This is especially important to keep in mind today as the digital revolution comes to an end and we enter a new era of innovation in which some tasks will be devalued and others will be increasingly in demand. Much like Christensen said about firms, we as a society need to learn to anticipate which skills will lose value in future years and which will be considered critical.
The Evolution of Economies
The first consumer product was most likely the Acheulean hand axe, invented by some enterprising stone age entrepreneur over 100,000 years ago. Evidence suggests that, for the most part, people made stone axes themselves, but as technology evolved, some began to specialize in different crafts, such as smithing, weaving, cobbling and so on.
Inventions like the steam engine, and then later electricity and the internal combustion engine, brought about the industrial revolution, which largely put craftsmen out of work and reshaped society around cities that could support factories. It also required new skills to organize work, leading to the profession of management and the knowledge economy.
The inventions of the microchip and the internet have led to an information economy in which even a teenager with a smartphone has better access to knowledge than a specialist working in a major institution a generation ago. Much like the industrial era automated physical tasks, the digital era has automated many cognitive tasks.
Now as the digital era is ending we are entering a new era of innovation in which we will shift to post-digital computing architectures such as quantum computing and neuromorphic chips and enormous value will be created through bits powering atoms in fields like synthetic biology and materials science.
Innovation, Jobs and Wages
As economies evolved, some tasks became devalued as others increased in importance. When people could go to a smith for metal tools, they had no need to create stone axes. In much the same way, the industrial revolution put craft guilds out of business and technologies like tractors and combine harvesters drastically reduced the number of people working on farms.
Clearly replacing human labor with technology is disruptive, but it has historically led to dramatic increases in productivity. So labor displacement effects have been outweighed by greater wages and new jobs created by new industries. For the most part, innovation has made all of us better off, even, to a great extent, the workers who were displaced.
Consider the case of Henry Ford. Because technology replaced many tasks on the family farm, he didn’t need to work on it and found a job as an engineer for Thomas Edison, where he earned enough money and had enough leisure time to tinker with engines. That led him to create his own company, pioneer an industry and create good jobs for many others.
Unfortunately, there is increasing evidence that more recent innovations may not be producing comparable amounts of productivity and that’s causing problems. For example, when a company replaces a customer service agent with an automated system, it’s highly doubtful that the productivity gains will be enough to finance entire new industries that will train that call center employee to, say, design websites or run marketing campaigns.
Identifying New Jobs To Be Done
To understand the disconnect between technological innovation and productivity it’s helpful to look at some underlying economic data. In US manufacturing, for instance, productivity has skyrocketed, roughly doubling output in the 30 years between 1987 and 2017, even as employment in the sector decreased by roughly a third.
It is the increased productivity growth in manufacturing that has fueled employment growth in the service sector. However, productivity gains in service jobs have been relatively meager and automation through technological innovation has not resulted in higher wages, but greater income inequality as returns to capital dwarf returns to labor.
Further economic analysis shows that the divide isn’t so much between “white collar” and “blue collar” jobs, but between routine and non-routine tasks. So warehouse workers and retail clerks have suffered, but designers and wedding planners have fared much better. In other words, technological automation is creating major shifts in the “jobs to be done.”
A recent analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute bears this out. It identified 56 “foundational skills” that are crucial to the future of work, but aren’t in traditional categories such as “engineering” or “sales,” but rather things like self awareness, emotional intelligence and critical thinking.
Collaboration Is The New Competitive Advantage
The industrial revolution drove a shift from animal power to machine power and from physical skills to cognitive skills. What we’re seeing now is a similar shift from cognitive skills to social skills as automation takes over many routine cognitive tasks, increasingly the “job” that humans are valued for is relating to other humans.
There are some things a machine will never do. An algorithm will never strike out at a Little League game, see its child born or have a bad day at work. We can, of course, train computers to mimic these things by training them on data, but they will never actually have the experience and that limits their ability to fully relate to human emotions.
To see how this is likely to play out, simply go and visit your local Apple Store. It is a highly automated operation, without traditional checkout aisles or cash registers. Still, the first thing that catches your eye is a sea of blue shirts waiting to help you. They are not there to execute transactions, which you can easily do online, but to engage with you, understand what you’re trying to achieve and help you get it done.
We’ve seen similar trends at work even in highly technical fields. A study of 19.9 million scientific papers found that not only has the percentage of papers published by teams steadily increased over the past 50 years, the size of those teams has also grown and their research is more highly cited. The journal Nature got similar results and also found that the work being done is far more interdisciplinary and done at greater distances.
What’s becoming clear is that collaboration is increasingly becoming a competitive advantage. The ultimate skill is no longer knowledge or proficiency in a particular domain, but to build a shared purpose with others, who possess a diverse set of skills and perspectives, in order to solve complex problems. In other words, the most important jobs the ones we do in the service of a common objective.
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