Dreamforce 2019 - how to save the future of work

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright November 20, 2019
Three tech leaders at Dreamforce discussed the impact of technology on the future of work and how to help people through the disruption

Dreamforce 2019 Future of Work panel by @philww
L-R Block, Humpton, Bhusri and moderator

Technology change is having a far-reaching impact on society. While some jobs are disappearing or changing, there are huge talent shortages elsewhere. In a discussion at Dreamforce earlier today, three tech industry leaders gave their thoughts on the future of work and how best to help people adjust.

All agreed that it's incumbent on the industry to take action to prevent a technology divide opening up in society. Workday CEO Aneel Bhusri cited programs that his company runs to help people learn new technology skills so they can either join or rejoin the workforce. It's really important to include everyone, he says:

It has to be a great place for all or it will start to fall apart. You see it in our politics right now. We have to bring everybody along. I think that's the job of leaders in today's complicated business world.

Barbara Humpton, President and CEO of global technology giant Siemens agreed that the key was giving everyone a chance to access opportunity:

Talent is pretty well evenly distributed across humanity. People have talent and are looking for ways to use it. The real opportunity gap is who's got the access? Who has the ability to get to where the job is, to get to where the education is?

As an example of the importance of access, Salesforce co-CEO Keith Block cited a study carried out by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), who had focused on deprived areas in Pittsburgh that were poorly served with transport options. After a year of making Uber rides available free of charge to people in selected areas, they found that crime rates in those areas had gone down, while wellbeing and health went up. As a result, the authorities in Pittsburgh are now looking at funding a transportation budget for those areas in partnership with Uber and other transport providers.

This project had been run from the Block Center, which he and his wife have funded to investigate public policy options around the use of technology. He explains:

We founded the Center at CMU to focus on the intersection of technology and policy and study the effects of how technology is being used ...

We want to see something happen, we want to affect policy. I don't want this to just be research.

Disrupting the established order

There was general agreement that technology has disrupted the established order. Workday's Bhusri says the impact of digital tech is pervasive:

Every company is digital, and either you're a technology company like the three of our companies, or you're a technology-enabled company. There's no third category. You're one of those two.

This idea of cultural change, the idea of technology transformation, that just has to be part of your everyday thinking, because everybody is going to become a tech company.

This has implications for everyone's career plans. People have to learn to be agile, and companies need to foster and encourage that mindset, says Humpton:

It's first creating the ownership culture where folks know that it is their responsibility, and they have the tools to go do this — and then giving them the safe and trusting culture that enables them.

The trio also talked about being open to bringing in talent that hasn't necessarily come through traditional educational or career channels. All three of their companies have programs to help service veterans join the workforce. There's also a lot of concern to bring in young people from different backgrounds.

Humpton pointed out that older people also have valuable knowledge to draw on, especially in an industrial context where much of the equipment and plant may have been in place for decades. With new digital technologies being retrofitted to these older items, Siemens is finding value in having teams with a spread of experience and ages, she says:

What we're finding is that these multi-generational teams can produce some really rich outcomes for customers. So I'm bullish on the idea of building teams that take advantage of long-term knowledge as well as new-fangled techniques.

Keep on learning

Whatever age people are, they must be willing to keep refreshing their skills, adds Bhusri. It's not just a matter of learning a new skill because your old job has disappeared. Today, nothing stands still, so you need to keep your new skills up-to-date:

It's not just reskilling. It's just making sure you stay current. All you should think about is, you can't get stale.

This means that people need to constantly be looking at the world with a beginner's mind. Humpton says:

I'm finding that the two key ingredients for success in our workforce development are curiosity and initiative. I don't care how old or young the folks are, if they've got curiosity and initiative, they're driving their careers in really exciting ways.

The general consensus was that the opportunities brought by all of these technology-driven changes outweigh the disadvantages. But there was also agreement that much more needs to be done to help avoid people being left behind. That will require action from public policy makers as well as private corporations, but there was some frustration that government often seems dysfunctional in the face of today's challenges.

Humpton concluded by arguing that businesses should perhaps be inspired by digital networking to see themselves as hubs for the communities in which they operate. Technology then becomes not only a catalyst for disruption, but also a tool to help people cope with it.

One of the things we've learned from watching digital transformation is, the future is networked. When people figure that out and get aligned, it's remarkable what they can accomplish.

The other thing we've learned is, look what's happened as we've created platforms. What if this societal impact were a platform? Businesses taking responsibility for their impact on society, recognizing they're working within an ecosystem of others, creating opportunity, creating jobs, and not just trying to create their own network, but actually creating a foundation that gives back to the community.

My take

No conclusive answers here, but these leaders showed their determination to help people and communities adjust to the impact of technology disruption.

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