The Five Giant Leaps Needed to Land The Future of Work

Posted by Laurence Collins on Sep 2, 2020 4:38:18 PM

Recognising that the world is evolving is not always an easy thing to do. Understanding, let alone responding to, the sheer pace at which everything is moving around us can be equally difficult.

Sometimes it is easier therefore to believe it isn't happening. Or alternatively, think we've seen it all before?

Which brings me to consider the rhetoric and the reality underpinning the future of work. Is it really anything new or have we already got the T-shirt?

Back in the 1950's the world was also entering a period of accelerated technological advancement. Innovations initially spawned from the darkness of war were continued in labs and test centres in the East and West. Partly motivated by commercial potential, and definitely maintained for political capital, two former allies embarked on a race for space. The world watched as the Superpowers of USA and USSR wove their technological ambition into a cold war mesh of ideological mistrust, military posturing and general brinkmanship.

A decade or so later, politicians that had already become plump from gorging on a feast of advanced scientific discovery were ready to burp the threat of intercontinental thermonuclear warfare into the face of humanity. Leaders were not leading. They were playing fast and loose with millions of lives.
And moving 60 years on to today we are back there again. This time the political leaders responsible for maintaining civilisation are still belligerently waving their missile technology, space defence systems and cyber warfare capability around. But innovation at scale is no longer just the preserve of state funded programmes and hapless politicians. There are corporate leaders too who are ready to stand up and be counted. The likes of Musk and Allen are exploiting the advancement of technology to sustain humankind's existence (who doesn't want to be able to jet off to Mars when planet earth can no longer support us), extend the lifespan of our planet itself and, of course, personally trouser a few more zillion quids.

Today, this future is presented as exciting. It is presented as the logical and unstoppable advancement of society. Being able to ditch all the mundane stuff we do every day to our own cyborg assistant is just us humans seeking that elusive natural emotion we all crave - happiness.

So, cast yourselves back to 25th May 1961 and President John F. Kennedy's address to Congress. This iconic moment in history essentially committed Americans to proving their technological prowess by landing men on the moon and returning them safely. It was a bold and savvy attempt to engender a warm glow of happiness across an entire nation. If we are technologically the most advanced nation in the world then we will be safer and therefore happier went the logic.

On July 20th 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to leave earth's orbit, land on a foreign entity, walk around for a bit, plant a flag and pop back in the lunar module to get back home in time for tea.

Total cost of doing all that - about $120bn in today's money. Note that this was only about a third of NASA's total budget between 1961 and 1972. It is also a snip when compared with other programmes. Apollo was 5 times cheaper than the funding for the Vietnam war and 4 times cheaper than the US commitment to interstate highway construction. Both these 'projects' were going on at the same time as Apollo and one could argue focussed much more on the first world problems of war and logistics.
So what did they get for their space investment?

In all, by the end of the 17th Apollo mission in 1972 they had achieved...

  1. Employment for over 400,000 people
  2. Return of 382kg of rocks, soil and moon dust to earth
  3. Twelve people completing moon walks
  4. World-leading rocket and integrated circuit technology
  5. Proof of humankind's irrepressible desire to progress

 

And that's the point. By putting humans into space they disrupted the status quo forever. Not because they really needed a financial ROI, but because they wanted to.

How they did it (assuming they did and that unlike the Flat Earth Society you don't think it was a hoax) provides a learning for us as today's next generation of disruptive humans. We are embracing the future of work in its full cognitive, robotic, and A.I. glory not because planet enterprise can't sustain us, but because we are inherently fascinated with how we progress as a species. How do we escape an existence where for most of us we are handcuffed to an employer in return for the financial ability to survive and yet yearn for the chance to remove the shackles and sprint off into a life of hedonistic freedom. We see technology and intelligence as the keys that unlock the chains.

The five giant steps achieved with Apollo, based on a race for technological supremacy, are exactly the same five giant steps enterprise needs to mirror today if it is to win the race to the future of work:

1. Skills - harnessing attributes of 400,000 talented people
2. Analytics - study of 386kg worth of raw source data
3. Team - moon walks requiring new ways of working
4. Work - technology augmenting the role of the human
5. Engagement - society emotionally connected


Let's consider these in turn through the lens of corporate leaders today taking their enterprises on a mission to disrupt the way we think about and undertake work.

Skills:

We know that the human skills mix and the advance of smarter technologies are fundamentally going to shift the demand profiles for different skill types. But it is also going the change the way we access these skills. Back in the 1960's NASA was already using today's equivalent of crowdsourcing to determine the best design for the lunar module and also the spacesuits. They ran a competition. 375,000 people on the programme were essentially contractors, volunteers and part-time contributors (giggers in today's terms) Skills were developed in areas that previously hadn't existed, such as computer programming, navigational astrophysics, ballistic propulsion engineering and protective ceramic manufacturing.

Apollo even developed the softer skills which we all know are just as important in our Future of Work as the STEM portfolio of capabilities. They adopted extrasensory perception training and tests as a means of transmitting thoughts.

Team:

In total, twelve US astronauts walked on the Moon's surface. That means 99.997% of the people on the programme were working towards a goal that they would not directly experience. This meant forming, managing and motivating complex teams on an enormous scale. As the Chief Architect of Apollo's Saturn V rocket described it:

"We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming".

This meant that teams had to come together based on diverse skills, qualifications and expertise. They had to actively sniff out risks, continually modify plans and experiment as they went along. They were agile without even being digital. They were also young. The average age of a Mission Control team member for Apollo 11 was just 28 years old. These individuals were given the opportunity and accountability to deliver one of the most inspiring programmes even undertaken in the history of humanity.

In fact their approach to networks of teams and the importance of a partner ecosystem was so agile that in 1963 they came close to formally teaming up with space experts from the USSR.

Today, our experience of work is more and more centred on coming together in teams and working at pace to solve a problem. NASA back in 1960's understood the importance of allowing teams to experiment and letting them fail. The faster they failed the quicker they found the answer. Corporate leaders often take people from their jobs, instigate performance investigations and interfere with remuneration in the face of failure. The result, because of our ability as humans to learn, is we don't bother taking risks.

Work:

Given society's fascination with jobs, either in terms of preserving them, objectively describing them, applying for them or ensuring fairness of pay for them, its a surprise that we don't really have any handle at all on the human capital value that flows into company balance sheets as a result of employing all the people that do these things called jobs.

In Apollo it was clear that the most mission critical work on putting the lunar module on the surface of the moon was piloting it, via the control of autonomous thrusters.

Nasa figured that the single task that would generate the most value from the overall work of the mission was that of safely navigating the lunar module on a flat area of surface and in an upright position.

After much consideration it realised that the astronauts needed help. They could not reliably process all of the associated tasks of landing, within the agreed tolerances, on a reliable basis.  So NASA built a computer capable of acting as the auto-pilot. They also had the foresight to create a semi-automated system that allowed for human intervention.

Hence we have probably the most effective example of human and machine working together for an outcome that neither could manage without the other. Therefore, with their time freed up from traditional piloting process activity, Aldrin and Armstrong were available to problem solve when the on-board computers reported an issue just seconds away from landing. They were able, because they had the capacity and skills to do so, apply an appropriate human over-ride and intervention. 

They steered the module to safety, landed with just 25 seconds of fuel remaining and leaped out onto the surface of moon to create history. 

This is the essence of the future of work. We must push to augment humans and machines to create more time for real value creation.

Analytics:

NASA are still processing data from the moon landings nearly 60 years ago. They are also clear that they made many mistakes along the way. From issues with storage, definition, accessibility and maintenance the Apollo missions have created a mini-industry in the management of data that endures to this day. 

What became clear was the missions would create quantities of data in the form of pictures, film, samples, metrics and analysis that hadn't been thought through.

Issues arose regarding storage, documentation, creation of a data taxonomy, dissemination and accessibility. Yet without their efforts in this area, and major financial investment, the raw data would not have helped us to create inventions back on earth such as early cancer detection techniques.

So with humanity generating nine times more data in the last couple of years than in the whole of the rest of the time we've existed on earth it is clear that data is the key to our evolutionary success. It drives everything we do in our life and indeed our work. 

Yet when we look at analytics in the context of future of work we are vexed. We are torn between the technology - what can we do with the data, and the ethics - what should we do with the data.

Safeguards are undoubtedly needed, but so too is the encouragement to see how analytics can be used for positive enhancement of our work. It is about trust and for this we need leaders that we can believe in. Therefore if leaders choose to adopt future of work technologies to eradicate cost, without re-investment in people, they will do irreparable damage to our confidence in enterprise to fill the void left by decades of incompetent and unhinged politicians.

Engagement:

Apollo won the heads, hearts and minds of the world.  For Americans it was inspirational. Physics PhD applications to universities in the US soared by 300% while the high-school inventors of the micro circuits ultimately used to power the mini computers in the landing module went on to found today's digital giant - Intel.

Back in mainstream America, people would stage Apollo parties. Large gatherings of families and friends huddled into living rooms watching grainy footage of brave American astronauts claim the moon, expand their borders and transform the mindset of humanity.

Just eight years previously, a President had set a mission and his People had delivered it while the entire planet marvelled at the magnitude of what they were witnessing.

 

 And so to the Future of Work.

 Today's generation of millennials are no different really to the pioneering 28 year olds of NASA.  The 'disruptive' technologies we talk about today actually stem from the innovation endeavours of their grandparents' generation. It feels as if there is a natural evolution to all of this and the clue to how we survive can surely be found in the success of the past. 

So I for one will be glued to a set of virtual reality goggles watching excitedly as Musk and his team of robotic builders successfully create a Mars colony infrastructure capable of accommodating humans by about 2030.

Quite what use I'll have for it once its built I don't really know. What's more I don't really care. It is not the point. Something very good will come from it. 

So, given that we have a corporate leader in Musk who is prepared to let us be inspired once again by a mission to take humanity deeper into space than ever before, we must hope that the rest of his enterprise leadership peers make sense of what to do with our life here on earth. We cannot, for example, tolerate the risk of disruptive technology being used to threaten mass unemployment or drive further wealth inequality. Leaders should therefore not ask what we workers can do for their businesses, but what should they do for our society. 

Now we are at the beginning of a new digital age, we demand the right to be inspired, engaged and involved in delivering the future of work.  Forget small inconsequential steps and we want the leaders enabling the giant responsible leaps we've seen humanity take before.

Topics: Technology

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