The 21st century workplace: moving to the edge

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:

emergent workplace

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.

new known

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 inter-connectivity, 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.

6 Responses to “The 21st century workplace: moving to the edge”

  1. Sylvia Paull

    Complex work has always been rewarded, while machines — from the flint to the tractor and the computer — have eliminated many of the repetitive tasks that all too many factory workers who make our tools are still bound to. Unless there is a concurrent social and political movement for openness, sharing, collaboration, and the free access to knowledge creation, the 21st century workplace will look much like the 20th century workplace, except with fancier tools.

    • Harold Jarche

      I agree, Sylvia. One additional challenge is that we in the west have a workforce that has not had to face the issue of repetitive-task-elimination for a generation or two, prior to the opening of world markets to the BRIC countries or the creation of the Internet/Web that connects us all in internet time.

  2. Will

    This is true. My work is complex, deals with problem solving, exceptions and automates tasks such as document processing which I guess eliminates jobs. You would think people could see the writing on the wall, retrain and re-educate themselves but instead they turn to protectionism. To empower yourself I recommend reading ‘Live Rich’ by Stephen Pollan and “The End of Work” by Jeremy Rifkin amongst others.

  3. murdo

    In specific regard to more recent trends in direct ‘consumer domain’ machine automation via new consumer technology
    devices and internet services becoming available, my view is that, going forward, human professional service provider
    skills will continue to be formed through a combination of the three following categories:

    1. Capability to deliver professional level speed, accuracy and reliablity.

    2. Full repetoire of up-to-date professional skills and range of tools usage capability.

    3. Capability to address highly complex problems through advanced solution provision.

    As a result, I agree with the comments above, and consider that ‘machines’ should continue to be viewed as a complex ‘tools’ weilded by, and sub-ordinate to, humans and that automation be effected within the ‘consumer domain’ only when assisting the efforts of existing human service providers, rather than replacing them through providing the *exact same service* level more efficiently.

    By convention, machine automation may usually be introduced only at the *most basic* consumer service level offering within any industry, *after* existing human service providers have begun an initiative to take on more complex tasks following a new human professional service level provider advancement being introduced.

    For example:

    Consumer Problem: “I’m in need of a refreshing drink, what solutions are available to me?”

    Producer Solution: “Select one from the following, depending on your desired level of service:”

    1. ‘Coke Machine’ Service Level

    – Basic Service (80%)

    – Usually cheapest, available 24/7, rudimentary service offering only.

    – Suitable for machine automation.

    2. ‘Chain Cafe’ Service Level

    – Professional Service (100%)

    – Usually mid-priced, mostly mainstream, comprehensive service offering.

    – Suitable for specialized human professonals.

    3. ‘Triple-Star Restaurant’ Service Level

    – Advanced Professional Service. (120%)

    – Usually higher-priced, more exclusive, advanced service offering.

    – Suitable for expert human professonals.


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