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22. The Future of Work

As education shifts, it needs to move in the direction of creating relevant work skills. The world of work has already been significantly transformed by the growing need to collaborate and by the many technologies that promote teamwork. The timing is good, because the world is getting more unpredictable and the stabilizing effect of a connected workforce is a necessity.

The same way the Gulf Coast oil spill illuminated the need for powerful, low cost virtual simulation, exploration and training, another unexpected event underscored the value of staying connected despite geographical dispersion.

On April 14 2010, we were working in London when Eyjafjallajökul erupted in Iceland. The volcanic ash cloud, among its other unintended consequences, instantly illuminated global interconnectedness. Trade wasn’t ground to a halt by five-days of limbo, but it was stopped in its tracks with costly consequences. Ten million roses rotted in Kenya and Mexico’s fruit and vegetable exports to Europe wilted. Thousands of people stranded in foreign cities all over the world had no idea what to expect as the plume continued to fill the sky.

Virtual work was the most stable aspect of what ended up being a three-week trip through six countries. In many cases, virtual work can cut down significantly on travel for geographically dispersed teams who no longer need to meet in the physical world to work. For some, however, travel has increased and virtual connectivity remains in the absence of colleagues between meetings.

In “The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion,” by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, it is noted that rather than diminishing the need or desire to travel, our digital infrastructures appear to be accompanied by significant increases in travel activity for specialized talent. Networking conferences, targeted meetings with individuals one first encounters through digital serendipity and the increased dispersion of collaborative global teams contribute to this. Virtual connectivity, however, connects global nomads when they are apart, enabling a deeper, more ubiquitous work environment, which makes it possible to continue working in the face of increasingly complex disruptions.

“Virtual work is not virtual at all,” said ManpowerGroup Senior Vice President for Innovation and Workforce Solutions, Tammy Johns. “It’s real, and it’s hugely beneficial to a global workforce living through an evolution of the work environment.”

“Social networks will become the new operating system of business,” says Don Tapscott, the author of Grown Up Digital and Macrowikinomics. As he notes, the younger generation, determined to use social media wherever they are, and soon to become a large percentage of the workforce, will demand these tools as a prerequisite for doing business.

To create the perfect world for many young employees, “Replace job descriptions with work goals and give them the tools, latitude and guidance to get the job done,” says Tapscott. Employers who can make peace with this new relationship with their employees will position themselves well to extract the extraordinary collaborative value that social media offers.

One of the dangers of education failing to prepare students for the reality of the modern workforce is the risk of increased dropout rates or failure to pursue advanced education. At the TechCrunch disrupt conference, investor Peter Thiel notoriously offered $100,000 for students under the age of 20 to drop out of college.

On March 11, 2010, TIME magazine published “The Dropout Economy” by Reihan Salam.

“But what if the millions of so-called dropouts are onto something?” Salam wrote. “As conventional high schools and colleges prepare the next generation for jobs that won’t exist, we’re on the cusp of a dropout revolution, one that will spark an era of experimentation in new ways to learn and new ways to live…People who feel obsolete in today’s information economy will be joined by millions more in the emerging post-information economy, in which routine professional work and even some high-end services will be more cheaply performed overseas or by machines. This doesn’t mean that work will vanish. It does mean, however, that it will take a new and unfamiliar form.”

This new and unfamiliar form is still in the process of taking shape. With travel budgets slashed and colleagues still needing to collaborate and socialize, virtual and hybrid environments are becoming pervasive in the interim for both education and work. Such environments would be a meager replacement for the physical world if they offered less, or if in fact they were replacements–but they don’t, and they aren’t.

Virtual environments can include all social media streams, the capacity for sharing media, creating and inhabiting spaces with elements that would not be possible in the physical world. Conferences and meetings held in virtual environments offer the additional tremendous benefit of one-click networking to access relevant information about other people in the space for instant connection.

Virtual work is less about a specific platform and more about cultivating an atmosphere of creativity that includes visionary use of available opportunities, or the creation of new ones, to customize professional relationships and amplify the power of the entire inclusive network surrounding each person and organization.

IBM uses multiple platforms for virtual training, simulation, work and meetings of all kinds, including Avaya’s web.alive.

“Here you can wander over and talk to people privately or in a group,” said IBM’s Kevin Aires, speaking through his avatar at the launch of the IBM CEO study from the IBM Analytics Virtual Center in Avaya’s web.alive platform. “And think of all the volcanoes that we aren’t flying through.”

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, who retired from IBM in 2007 after 37 years with the company but continues to consult on a number of initiatives including Smarter Planet, said that companies that discourage the use of social media technologies at work will be at a disadvantage in getting people to collaborate across the organization, as well as in their ability to attract and retain a talented workforce.

“Advanced technologies and innovations,” Wladawsky-Berger has said, “such as those emerging around virtual worlds, can significantly improve the effectiveness of distributed organizations. When distant team members share a common virtual space, such as a virtual office or lab, they can not only better communicate but also become more aware of each other’s presence even when not communicating. Such distance awareness and presence might help create more cohesive and focused virtual work environments.”

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  1. Kory Ziff says:

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