Experts met recently at the SAP Innovation Center in Potsdam to weigh in on the future of work.

Predicting the future is risky business. You never really know if you are going to get it right. While experts may not agree on exactly how work will change in the next decades, there is growing consensus that “we find ourselves at the edge of another industrial revolution,” according to Professor Sabine Kunst, president of the Humboldt University, Berlin.

“Advances in artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and Big Data are already profoundly shifting all aspects of society — how we work, connect, organize politically, and learn as human beings,” she continues.

Predicting the future is risky business

What to anticipate, how to manage these changes, and how to ensure humans do not get left behind is what business leaders, researchers, academics, policy makers, and innovators met to discuss at the recent SAP research round table on the Future of Work at the SAP Innovation Center in Potsdam, Germany.

Hosted by SAP’s Future of Work team, the event was designed in collaboration with TÜV Rheinland, a leader in technical services for testing, inspection, certification, and training, together with INQA (Initiative New Quality of Work), which aims to improve the quality of work in ways that benefit companies and employees. The research round table explored how “new work” requires reimagining how we organize work, how leaders lead, and how we incentivize people, build skills, and gain knowledge throughout a lifetime, while connecting people with jobs that do more than just sustain them financially but also have meaning and value.

Participants from large as well as small and midsize companies wrestled with these themes in a world café format designed to challenge experts to come up with real-world solutions that can be supported by smart software.

Everything that Can Be Automated Will Be Automated

“We are facing a future where almost everything that can be automated will be automated”, according to Guenter Pecht-Seibert, head of the Future of Work team at SAP. “So anticipating emerging jobs, in-demand skills sets, alternative organizational structures, and disruptions to current educational formats is critically important not only for companies, but for society as a whole.”

With the pace of digitalization accelerating, the pressure to innovate and find novel solutions to never-before-seen problems is increasing. In 1958, a Standard & Poor’s 500 company could hope to be around for an average of 61 years. Today, they only survive 18 years on average. Why? Because 20th century structures don’t meet 21st century needs for more agility and innovation.

Management practices and organizations as we know them today were established at a time when low levels of automation, a poorly educated workforce doing manual tasks, and stable mass markets had businesses focused on increasing production and efficiency. At that time, hierarchical management practices enabled a few educated people to instruct others on how to complete tasks effectively. Traditional educational institutions, like schools and universities were the gatekeepers of knowledge.

Today, a highly-educated, highly-mobile and increasingly-networked workforce is poised to experience a degree of automation like never before. Barriers to knowledge and skill-building are falling as people across the socioeconomic spectrum access high-quality digital content. Yet our management practices, educational institutions, and organizational structures — not to mention the software systems that support them — are deeply rooted in those hierarchical 20th century ideas about the best ways to structure work, motivate people, and build skills.

What will need to change to create more agile and innovative organizations?

Will Managers Become Obsolete?

Participants imagined a future where organizational and team boundaries become more permeable. They chewed on the provocative question of whether leaders will be obsolete in the self-managed organizations of the future. They concluded that the future needs a new breed of leaders: those who are enablers, creating just the right conditions for information to flow and creativity to flourish. Transparency will be key. Trust in people and in the decisions they make will be an essential prerequisite for leaders. The ability for leaders to let go of aspects of the decision-making power they hold today will be crucial in teams where highly skilled and competent individuals collaboratively look for solutions to complex scenarios.

Here’s where software comes in. Today’s structured, regular reporting tools will give way to more ad-hoc, decision-support tools that make business data accessible across levels and organizational boundaries. Instead of equipping only top executives with the knowledge to make smart decisions, systems will enable teams to make decisions in alignment with the business strategy.

This requires a deep understanding of the business strategy across the organization. Situation rooms, war rooms, digital boardrooms — all once the purview of top execs — will need to be standard tools for self-managed teams, linking them to the real-time, contextual information they need for wide-ranging decisions.

As decision-making abilities shift from individual managers to teams, documenting those decisions will become imperative. What was the basis for this decision? Who was involved in this decision and what was the context? Once again, software’s role is obvious. Participants expressed the need for software that provides all the data and information necessary for the entire decision-making process.

As teams gain decision-making power, it will become more important than ever to staff those teams with the right mix of people who bring the just the right skills and perspectives. “Competent people make competent decisions” was a guiding principle that participants defined. Therefore, solutions for defining which competencies an organization needs, identifying people who have them, and matching those people to roles was yet another area seen as being more important than ever in future — an area where software will be essential.

Technology Is Changing Fast; Education Needs to Keep Pace

The future requires us to let go of established mental models, especially when it comes to learning. According to Markus Dohm, executive vice president of Academy & Life Care for TÜV Rheinland, “We need to get away from seeing life being neatly dividing up into three parts: we go to school, then we work, and then we retire. This assumes that learning happens in the first phase and prepares us for our entire working life, when actually we need to be learning throughout our lifetime. Education needs to be built around new models that recognize gaining knowledge and skills throughout a lifetime is the new normal.”

Gaining knowledge and skills throughout a lifetime is the new normal

Participants were challenged to think about a future where human creativity will become the key creator of economic value as routine tasks become automated. They were tasked with exploring the skills people who work in more self-directed ways need and how education and competency-building approaches must be retooled to provide those.

Clearly, a goal they shared in common was the need to bridge the gap between the competencies people have and the competencies organizations need. They discussed strategies for mapping skill requirements of individuals to the skill requirements of organizations, and the options software can provide. They questioned traditional ways of creating competency profiles manually, and explored new approaches that use Big Data processing options to automatically propose competency profiles.

According to Norbert Koppenhagen who heads Future of Work Research at SAP, “We are exploring options for building an intelligent personal career and learning assistant to guide individuals throughout their lifetime, by automatically proposing competency profiles matching people’s learning needs with the most appropriate skills-building opportunities, like peer-learning, mentoring, and online sources.”

While online learning options have been around for decades, the group explored why barriers to accessing online learning still persist in certain professions and how they can be overcome.

Nobody really knows what the future holds. But we do know that imagining that future is a tried and true way of preparing for change and ensuring that we can influence the direction that future takes.

Under the leadership of Guenter Pecht-Seibert, the Future of Work team at SAP helps organizations transform from the industrial age to the information age by becoming more purpose-led and self-managed. They conduct research, product development, and go to market for cloud business applications.