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Will SkillSET address Workism?

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy January 24, 2018
The SkillSET initiative is to be applauded but it needs to be balanced against the obsession with workism in what could be a post-work world.

work life balance via Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
Work-life balance?

Like Stuart Lauchlan, I like the ideas and sentiments behind the WEF announced SkillSET initiative. But I wonder whether it will be enough in a world where the concept of work is becoming increasingly fractured.

Let's start with the ambition, summed up in the words of Bill McDermott, CEO SAP:

In the economy, we’re in the middle of a customer-driven growth revolution. There have never been opportunities in the entire world like there are today. The consumer is on the move, is in multiple channels. Data has become the new steel with which you can build new business models on the fly. You can reach customers around the world, even if you’re a small business with not much funding.

If we use digital and embrace this change with automation, it can be a real help to job creation. Gartner said there would be $2.9 trillion in economic value created in AI alone by 2021.

Based on my interactions with McDermott over the years, I know him to be more than a 'glass half full' person - it's more 'glass AND a half full.' He doesn't see problems, he sees opportunities and when they resonate with him, then he's full-on-board. For example, the SAP community today is a mess but in McDermott's eyes, it represents a chance to do something better, something more.

In follow up email, McDermott sounded super pumped by the possibility of bringing all elements of the community together in a purposeful way. I have no doubt that in SkillSET, he believes there is tremendous opportunity to not only do good but also to help SAP.

But it was the words of Chuck Robbins, CEO Cisco that most impressed:

There’s a whole lot of issues out there that we not only have to care about, we also have the ability to leverage the innovation that we deliver on a day-to-day basis and actually go and attack some of these issues. More of us feel that way than not.

Quite how that will be articulated remains to be seen but I see huge roadblocks along the way.

In a New York Times article entitled BlackRock’s Message: Contribute to Society, or Risk Losing Our Support, Lawrence D. Fink CEO was quoted as saying:

'Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose,' he wrote in a draft of the letter that was shared with me. 'To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.'

BlackRock is investing in people who will monitor this aspect. The implication is that BlackRock will seek to punish those that don't come up to muster. They won't be able to do that alone but the feeling is that their clout is enough for this to percolate among other investor groups.

In a candid assessment of what’s happening in the business world — and perhaps taking a veiled shot at Washington at the same time — Mr. Fink wrote that he is seeing 'many governments failing to prepare for the future, on issues ranging from retirement and infrastructure to automation and worker retraining.' He added, 'As a result, society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges.'

At one level, SkillSET looks like a welcome response. But...

I have yet to see whether investors will sacrifice performance for investments that contribute to the common good. I could be wrong but if history teaches me anything, the answer is a resounding 'No.' Trawl through the mountains of analysis at places like Seeking Alpha and much of what you'll see are technical analyses or opinions that are utterly devoid of anything remotely reflecting Fink's words.

To put this in perspective, SAP under the co-CEO leadership of McDermott and Jim Hageman Snabe had vibrant and active social responsibility programs to the point where Snabe's car parking space was reserved for an electric car charging point. In recent years, those programs have all but faded into the background. Why?

To date, the only reason that any company will embark on CSR programs is when they see an economic benefit. That still remains the case. In CSR, I include programs like SkillSET because they extend well beyond the idea of life-learning.

On the other hand, there is a steady drumbeat of articles that bring into question the nature of work. A powerful and very long piece in The Guardian entitled Post-work: the radical idea of a world without jobs threads together multiple themes underpinned by the thought that:

Our culture of work strains to cover its flaws by claiming to be unavoidable and natural. “Mankind is hardwired to work,” as the Conservative MP Nick Boles puts it in a new book, Square Deal. It is an argument most of us have long internalised.

It is this hard-wiring that story author Andy Beckett traces back to the so-called 16th-century Protestant work ethic, dubbing it 'workism,' an ideology just as powerful as any political or economic belief system.

I'd argue this is the underpinning of Vinnie Mirchandani's thesis that demands an optimistic view of the future. In his story: Universal Basic Income: Utopian reaction to a Dystopian scenario, Mirchandani says (and I am cherry picking from a sequence of statements so do read the full text:

For eons, many of us have derived our self-esteem from our work lives...

...We are letting our pessimism drive us to a social program which will cripple many economies. Even worse, it will dent work ethic. For most of us work equals dignity and immense satisfaction from accomplishing something each day. Why are we trying to destroy that?

But is that true? There is mounting evidence, as Beckett enumerates, that people are becoming little better than indentured slaves to a system of employment that seeks to drive out cost by any means necessary:

The growth of productivity, or the value of what is produced per hour worked, is slowing across the rich world – despite the constant measurement of employee performance and intensification of work routines that makes more and more jobs barely tolerable.

Unsurprisingly, work is increasingly regarded as bad for your health: “Stress … an overwhelming ‘to-do’ list … [and] long hours sitting at a desk,” the Cass Business School professor Peter Fleming notes in his new book, The Death of Homo Economicus, are beginning to be seen by medical authorities as akin to smoking.

Paradoxically, Mirchandani proposes an economic alternative that has been tried under many guises:

Instead of UBI, I would prefer an enhanced Earned Income Credit. Let’s supplement, as needed, the incomes of those who get a good’s night sleep after accomplishing something they feel good about during the day.

(My emphasis added.)

Sadly, it is the part that I have emphasized that is the hardest to achieve for those requiring this type of social credit.

In earlier books, Mirchandani pointed to the need for us to become polymaths. I see that today, but only in bits and pieces.

Last weekend, my son's longtime partner talked about running a small wedding planning business via Facebook while at the same time doing floristry and upscale shop window dressing. Each of these activities help fulfill her desire to exercise the trades and education she learned. But they hardly count as careers. I guess it's a case of see which one pans out the best but for the time being, it seems to be working.

One of my grandsons came to me last week with a franchise proposition that would allow him to fulfill his dream of running a soccer academy for young children. That would be alongside other things he has to do to pay the bills but it would be a start on something I personally find admirable. But it's hard to see how he will raise the funds or even if the idea will 'travel' to his proposed location. A good idea whose time has yet to come?  I don't know and yet maybe I am underestimating the extent to which people are seeing the kinds of opportunity that Mirchandani sees.

We are told that today's work environment means we can look forward to a succession of 'careers,' where lifelong learning becomes central. That's the polymath theory at work and one that Mirchandani uses when talking about the 'careers' I've followed. I'm not sure I wholly agree. What I do today arose out of a deep dislike of a former career and a determination to never do something I didn't find satisfying in itself. It's the same thinking that keeps my brother going as a master luthier. I was lucky enough to follow that dream but many others are not so fortunate.

I'd prefer to ask a different question. How can we produce the kind of work that is economically stable while satisfying a person's interests and capabilities? That flips the discussion from 'work ethic' to one of 'work satisfaction.' The answer, we're told, lies in technology, hence the SkillSET initiative.

It is a persuasive argument for sure but has to be matched by the kind of public-private partnerships that hold the promise of good outcomes. Put those together and then perhaps we can start to believe in the corporate mantras that talk so much about building a better future but which today often seem so hollow when contextualized into financial reality.

London 2018 UNLEASH banner - diginomica supports

Image credit - Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Disclosure - SAP is a premier partner at the time of writing.

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