The future promises to be a bit of a blur, but in a good way, according to speakers at Work in Progress: Workplace Leadership in the New Collar Future, a one-day conference co-hosted by Victoria University of Wellington.

The conference, held as a response to research by the University’s Working Capital project in partnership with the Wellington Regional Strategy Office and the Wellington Gold Awards, heard how the boundaries between work and education and between executive leaders and their ’employee followers’ are likely to be increasingly blurred amid the technological changes ahead.

Keynote speaker Finance Minister Grant Robertson spoke in his opening address of “a conveyor belt of training throughout your working life” whereby: “From time to time, you may step off the training conveyor belt to do some specific jobs, but you will always be training and retraining.”

Jo Cribb, co-author of Don’t Worry About the Robots: How to Survive and Thrive in the New World of Work, told the conference the notion of the ‘three stages of life’ is becoming obsolete.

“We have the first phase of our life where we go into education, and the next stage where we go to work, and then we stop work and retire. I think we need to rethink our life through a different lens,” said Cribb during a panel discussion. “This three-stage life isn’t the reality for most of us and definitely won’t be the reality for our children. We will move in and out of education, we will move in and out of different phases of work.”

Josh Williams, Chief Executive of the Industry Training Federation, warned that only 21 percent of school leavers go straight into work and 6 percent into apprenticeships.

“When I say to you construction needs another 50,000 and service industries need 200,000 and primary industries need 25,000 and even aged care alone needs 15,000, you begin to see we cannot stack that up from people just coming in on the supply side,” said Williams.

“How about we take more of our young people straight into apprenticeships – more than 6 percent? And how about we blur their experiences in the last couple of years of high school.”

Williams showed an example of that in action, with students spending two days of paid work each week developing skills on the job and the other three days at school.

He emphasised “the gains around employability in blurring experiences in the way Europeans have been doing for a long time, a more dual approach to training between school and the workforce … rather than frankly an industrial model where we go to school, then do a big course, and then good luck out there in the world of work”.

We should use workplaces “as sites of learning to save everyone’s money, avoid skills mismatch, minimise technology lag and acquire skills as we develop them in the productive economy as people themselves become productive”, said Williams.

“That frontloading of skills into youth is not going to be the skills strategy for the future of work. Nor – my message to employers – is the idea we can outsource all the training to the education system and somehow that will magically produce the numbers and skillset we need.”

In her main conference presentation, Cribb concentrated on leadership, from the perspective of someone who has moved on from a traditional executive career – including as Chief Executive of the Ministry for Women – to a portfolio one – including as part-time Chief Executive of the New Zealand Book Council and holder of directorships on government and NGO boards.

“Our work is, and will be, increasingly driven and shaped by the increasing volume of data available to us and our increasing ability to process that data and make increasing numbers of technical decisions or process corrections as we go,” she said.

“As everyone is likely to be able to have access to similar data and potentially the capability to make sense of it, we will need to be agile to get ahead or at least to keep even on top of our work. As a result, decisions will need to be decentralised, made by customer-facing staff or those working right in the data. Increasingly, the expectation will be on employees to focus on problem-solving and service, as the most routine and manualised parts of our jobs can be automated.

“The successful employees will have to be self-motivated and will have a range of tools at their fingertips in order to be able to do their work. But either the upside or potentially the downside is our performance will also be able to be increasingly monitored in real time by those very platforms we use to help us with our work.”

With employees, more self-managed and more supervised by technological programs, organisations could have much flatter hierarchies, said Cribb.

There would be need for fewer managers, “less what I call the field management function, such as the supervision, monitoring of day to day decision-making, and those manual sign-off processes”.

However, she said, “what we will need more than ever is leadership. And by leadership I mean actions that help create direction and a culture and an environment where us as workers can add value. Leadership will be there to tell a story of an organisation, a story that brings us together and helps motivate us as workers and those that consume what we produce. And leadership will be definitely needed in terms of leading change. The changes we need to make continuously for our organisation’s story and what we do and how we behave”.

But with management, supervisory and sign-off functions removed, chief executives might become like board directors, with leadership purchased on a part-time basis as needed, said Cribb.

How, she asked, “do we get past our current leadership paradigm which often rewards the hero, the individual [in central control], to what is needed for the future? Given we are all creatures of this current system, how do we grow leaders who are completely different?”

And in order to be a leader you have to have followers, pointed out the conference’s MC, psychologist Sarb Johal. What does ‘followship’ look like in the future?

“I think that’s a great concept,” said Cribb. “This whole concept of following a leader is quite embedded. When you think about that, you go straight to there’s a leader there and we’re all getting in behind. What if it starts to become reversed? What if in an organisation the people who are making most of the decisions are completely the frontline and what if they are leading, in a whole series of micro-decisions, the future of your organisation? That kind of flips on its head what is leadership and ‘followership’ in a way, doesn’t it?”

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