The evidence of simple and (merely) complicated work getting automated and outsourced is widespread. Meanwhile, the business imperative is to be innovative, creative and agile. The current Canada Post strike is evidence of this shift, with workers reacting against a major automation initiative. The postal automation process currently has significant flaws, but who thinks these cannot be solved in some future iteration? What is the future of complicated work, such as mail sorting and delivery? Rather bleak, I would think. However, solving a customer’s unique problem of getting pieces of art to several remote locations can be complex. There will always be complex problems that cannot be solved through automation.
I’ve used this concentric model to describe the networked workplace in recent posts:
Basically, valued work in the 21st century workplace is moving to the outer rings to deal with growing complexity and chaos. The high-value work is in facing complexity, not in addressing problems that have already been solved and for which a formulaic or standardized response has been developed.
Dave Jonassen has said that as adults, most people are paid to do only one thing – solve problems. When dealing with work problems we can categorize the response as either known or new. Known problems require access to the right information to solve them. This information can be mapped, and frameworks such as knowledge management (KM) help us to map it. We can also create tools, especially electronic performance support systems (EPSS) to do work and not have to learn all the background knowledge in order to accomplish the task. This is how simple and complicated knowledge gets automated.
Complex, new problems need tacit knowledge to solve them. Exception-handling is becoming more important in the networked workplace. The system handles the routine stuff and people, usually working together, deal with the exceptions. As these exceptions get addressed, some or all of the solution can get automated, and so the process evolves.
The 21st century workplace, with its growing complexity due to our interconnectivity, requires that we focus on new problems and exception-handing. This increases the need for collaboration (working together on a problem) and cooperation (sharing without any specific objective).
One challenge for organizations is getting people to realize that what they know has little value. How to solve problems together is becoming the real business imperative. Sharing and using knowledge is where business value lies. With computer systems that can handle more and more of our known knowledge, the 21st century worker has to move to the complex and chaotic edge to get the real (valued & paid) work done. In 50 years, this may not be an issue, but right now there are many people who need help with this challenge. This is the important work of leaders everywhere: enabling the current workforce to enter the 21st century.