The Future of Work – the Machines and the Purposeful, Talented Humans

This week I am in Sibos in Sydney speaking about a number of things but the topic closest to my heart is the Future of Work and we’re slicing and dicing that on stage in front of nearly 8000 bankers. I fully expect we’ll be unpacking far too little with so many big topics swirling around when it comes to trying to imagine what the workplace looks like in 2050. I also expect it will be an awkward session with hard truths shy to come out and same old eager to fill in the blanks.

Who is it?

As we were preparing this it became clear there is simply so very much to touch on. With it being one of the very few sessions regarding our biggest asset in banking – our employees, it’s evident that collectively, it continues being so much more comfortable overall to speak about technology, numbers, standards and the theoretical threat of a distant AI future.

Even with the best of intentions we have to wonder how to best spend our limited floor time to drive the right messages. We have such an extensive backlog of “stuff we haven’t talked about but needs doing” from discussing true diversity to unpacking big notions such as organisational structure and culture, banks’ soul and employee engagement and purpose, ways of working and general work canvas across all industries as machines come in.

If I had my way we would leave diversity out of it. Not because it isn’t important but because it IS important and an overall layer of decency and morality that should be undeniably understood as mandatory part of whatever future we are creating. There shouldn’t be anything to convince anyone of, nothing to debate. Work in the future in any industry will be as wonderfully diverse be it from a gender, nationality or personality point of view as to reflect society in general and everyone would be equalised not by that which differentiates them but that which unites them – their hearts and their brains.

What is love?

Knowing me, the ones that will be listening to the session tomorrow know that I will be adamantly obsessive eternally bringing it back to our PeopleNotTech core values of Knowledge, Courage and Passion not so for the sake of a gratuitous pitch but because it is the essence of what it should all come down to.

When you do big Don Quixote level battles you learn to quickly seize up the windmill and all too often the problem bankers have stars straight from hearing our mission when they first come across the terms. They are the opposite of the direct, plain, numbers based conversations they have elsewhere. They seem fluffy, hard to grasp, painful to analyse and so intangible in results they avoid or dismiss them.

In rooms much smaller than SIBOS’, with bankers who aren’t sure and shift uncomfortably at the mention of these three simple terms I like to play a game of “inhabit your discomfort” and press the point. Say the words clearly and with aplomb. Deliver with pauses. Wait out the uncomfortable silences. Seek out their eyes when they shift their gaze and eventually, if still necessary, ask them to tell me what other words would they use for what really matters.

They sense the challenge and the point I am trying to prove so all of a sudden they reach for what must class the most far-fetched “mission-like” word they can find and out come things such as “experience and know-how”, “emotional intelligence”, “talent”, “cultural fit”, “bravery”, “engagement”, “internal branding” and “purpose”.

I match each and every one with its corresponding value “experience and know-how” IS “knowledge”, “engagement” IS “passion”, etc. They start to get it and accept that we spent a long time searching for these deep and fundamental common denominators that are so intensely human and ease into the terms. I repeat them, they repeat it back. Hurdle one overcome. This technique won’t help at all at SIBOS so we’ll have to hope everyone in the room is accountable to themselves and holds the discomfort independently.

Changing the narrative to focus on intangible topics in lieu of numbers has always been challenging. The best example of this is when in 1975 in San Francisco – Tom Peters and Richard Pascal sat down to work out what can be done to change the dire situation of American workers in recession. They are both in awe of what the Japanese are doing to turn their loss into an industrial revolution win by work ethics and methodology and they propose the difference between them and their American counterparts lies in a the lack of a higher sense of mission.

They are certain that people and tools are no different and the competitive advantage of different processes is the result of one major gain they have: a sense of shared value that runs down the organisation to the employees. A mission to match a strong vision.

They both go on to write books but Pascal’s is met with reticence and raised eyebrows – what’s this talk of mission and shared values? So what if the Japanese went to work for a higher purpose? Peter’s “In Search of Excellence” has a different tone if it touts the same concepts and as a result lands better popularising the idea that a company must have values and a real vision and not simply offer jobs.

Nowadays everyone has a marble plaque in the hallway with the vision carved out and laid bare for all to see and we can debate its effectiveness and reason d’etre all we like but having had that introduced back in the day has shaped the way we view work and elevated the economy when the focus shifted from employed worker bees to invested partners so it stands as the first example of the idea of “purpose”

We have to move past the discomfort and advance to discussing the crux of the issue which is “How do you make employees genuinely love you? How do you avoid ever mandating it and instead nurture and painstakingly build it within your people until they are all owner-level invested? All in. All heart.

What is talent?

Some argue the term in itself comes from how in 1997 – McKinsey reacts to the emerging personnel crisis where mass brains migration is happening from corporate to Silicon Valley jobs by creating a strategy by the name of “The War on Talent” where in a nutshell, they propose that employee performance can and should be measured more accurately to only retain the valuable and purge the non-performant. With examples from other giants such as Enron or GE, they sell the idea of there being three types of employees A, B and C and they are each more or less valuable, desirable and worth keeping.

If we go back to the beginning of the 00s the term was on everyone’s lips. Having the right talent was seen as a sine qua non measure of success and more and more valuations were starting to take into account tangible measurements around the human capital. Sadly, against a backdrop of economical unrest the overall rampant political correctness society is moving towards has modified the discourse. One needs only look at an HR strategy these days to know the term has fallen out of favour presumably on charges of being elitist and exclusive.

To attempt to leave at least some major moral topics out of this “hey y’all look what we’re talking about over here at Sibos” supposedly light hearted article I won’t enter the debate on how the only effective measure of inclusivity is true meritocracy but I will say that shunning the term of “talent” is a dangerous trend we must stop. If we find we must redefine what is valuable in an employee – whether it is still what they know or how they apply it and whether they apply it then we most definitely should do so – initiate an open and ultimately helpful dialogue on what makes up real human capital but we can’t, for the sake of ill understood political correctness pretend every employee we have is equally valuable and there are no desirable attributes as that is business suicide.

Here too we are stopped by our own  collective limitations when it comes to phrasing the discourse and we must find a way to call a spade a spade and carry on discussing not what we should call it but the really important questions around whether we should seek out talent or build it.

What is “human”?

A lot of the discussion will be focused on one of our favourite subject that feeds the collective nerd SciFi kid curiosity: will machines replace humans in the work place.


No doubt in the panel, people will liberally quote Brett King as he’s thankfully the foremost voice to have spent time examining this in his book Augmented, people will mention Hawkins and Musk and go on personal tangents about this one experience they once had calling to move a direct debit and dealing with a bank’s chatbot.

None of the above has been rehearsed of course, they are simply an educated guess on how it will all go, the result of  my observations of all other conversations I have been part of lately. It’s an exciting and intensely personal topic and everyone has an AI fear or an AI fetish and a vision on whether machines will take over and when.

I’m not exempt from talking and writing about the topic – in this piece called “Stop doing the Robot” I argue vehemently that irrespective of the when and how, the only defence we have against this apocalyptic future of potential destruction is to empower ourselves and the future generations with emotions and attributes that remain – for now -the apanage of humanity and outside the ability of machines. Empathy, complex emotions translated to data, shared purpose, intuition and common sense.

Make no mistake about it, this is a race and one we should take seriously – at some hospitals they are testing bedside manner for kids ran by Watson in IBM’s medical solutions suit – if that isn’t a sign that empathy itself is soon to cease being the apanage of humans I don’t know what is.

We can’t stop machines coming in and replacing a vast majority of the jobs we used to do. In fact, we’re working very hard on doing the opposite and are fervently working to build them and invite them in but we can, and ought to, focus on what is it that will remain “ours” and necessary. What is exclusively and deeply human.  

I’m not sure we have much to talk about on this “Future of Work” panel as it’s crystal clear:

The “how” is not under question. How should we work in the future. By ever growing and adapting. Agile-ly, Lean-ly. Intently. Diversely Non-Silos-y.

And the “who” is not under question either. The robots and us. All of us who use our minds and our hearts to their full potential, who dare to know and care and speak up, and be passionate, and have gut feelings and the drive to act on them.

The machines can have the jobs, us humans will hold on to the talented purpose.

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