“Inspiring and terrifying” perspectives on leadership for the future of work


I was honored to recently give a Special Lecture at Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY, on Leadership for the Future of Work.

I discussed how in a world in which work is dramatically changing, we must all show leadership in taking the actions that will shape as positive a future as possible for society.

Two articles on my keynote captured some of the points I made.

A piece in The Statesman Keynote speaker Ross Dawson discusses the future of work noted:

Dawson, the author of multiple books about human networks including “Living Networks,” said the structures, disciplines, organizations and types of work will change greatly in the future.

“Whatever we prepare ourselves for now, we have to be prepared for that to change again,” Dawson said. “So, adaptability needs to be something that we instill in our children, universities and educational institutions.” He said the fundamental differences between humans and machines are going to play an important role in redesigning future works, where humans’ unique capabilities play roles that are complementary to machines, and vice versa.

“Every single job, including that of a CEO can be partially automated; there’s almost no jobs that can be fully automated,” he said. Dawson predicted that we will have a better understanding of ourselves in the coming decades through the power of technology, including the ability to shape ourselves through genetic engineering and human augmentation, which is the overcoming of human limitations through technology. “We’re moving closer and closer [to a point] where we will not be able to discern between humans and machines,” Dawson said. He added though, that, “machines are forcing us to be more human than ever before.”

Humans, and especially organizations, need to recognize the potential of individuals, develop that potential and draw out people’s fullest humanity in terms of capabilities, creativity and relationships, Dawson said. Having a deep understanding of knowledge within a given context is a unique human capability that machines cannot emulate. Creativity and imagination are also intrinsically human. “This applies to certainly, very obviously, the arts and humanities, but I would argue that science is a deeply creative domain,” Dawson said. “In order to be able to, not just know which directions to push, but how to be able to find a new possibility, make the connections, discover new ways of thinking about the world which we live in… these are all deeply creative domains.”

Dawson said one of the skills needed in the future is design. Designing interfaces between technologies and humans, making sense of the data collected to support decisions and understanding human emotions is all crucial, he said. He gave the example of the increasing demand for personal trainers. “If a robot tells you to do another 10 push-ups, you’re not going to do that,” Dawson said. “Whereas, if someone you have emotional engagement [with] tells you that, you’re going to… respond to that.”

Linda Meise, a retiree from Riverhead, said Dawson’s lecture was “equally inspiring and terrifying.”

An article in SBU Happenings Ross Dawson Brings the Future of Work Into Focus reported:

“The ability to learn, learning how to learn, being better at learning: this is fundamental,” Dawson said. “[People] will not be able to succeed unless they can do this.”

During his lecture, Dawson asserted that rapidly developing technology will make routine manual labor obsolete and non-routine manual labor will soon follow. The jobs of the future, therefore, will be cognitive focused, meaning jobs that require deductive reasoning as well as human emotion and empathy.

He spoke about how data is growing exponentially and that it behooves us to better understand that data if we are to make effective decisions. That will be the job of data professionals who are educated in mining, analyzing and interpreting data.

“We need to change the nature of work. We need to change the structure of work,” he said.

The only certainty about the future, he added, is that the changes to how we go about most things are going to be dramatic. In turn, one key element of survival will be adaptability — how we respond to that change.

“We must become deeper and deeper experts,” he said. “We must go deeper and deeper.”

Universities that fail to keep up with the changes will be challenged on many levels, Dawson said. Shaping their brand is key to how institutions of higher education will survive.

“I think we will see that many universities will be challenged. So the brand and reputation of a university is paramount. It is how it is seen. And every brand has multiple facets,” he said.

That brand is not only built on how a university shapes its messaging and portrays itself, he added, but it is also born of the character and successes of its graduates. “I find it extraordinary how employers around the world continue to say that the graduates that they hire aren’t ready for work and they have to put them through their own training program,” he said. “So there is a massive opportunity there.”

There is also opportunity in leveraging people power to drive technologies, Dawson believes. He said that the fundamental differences between humans and machines will play a role in designing future jobs, and that to prosper businesses and institutions will need to recognize the intrinsic value of our humanity, something machines can’t offer.

The most employable people in the future, he said, will be those who have several areas of expertise, who can pivot from one knowledge base to another seamlessly and apply that knowledge to their services. And if we can learn to collaborate with artificial intelligence, we act as a link to all that is great about computers and humanity, he said.

“Dual expertise is truly unique and distinctive,” Dawson said.