Job Security In a Digitalized World Is About What You Can Learn

We are entering a new age that might be called The Human Revolution, a time when technology innovations are enabling revolutionary changes in the nature of jobs and how they are performed. Companies around the world are transforming their workplace experiences by leveraging new philosophies and intelligent tools to drive better business results. Jobs, economies, and societies are being radically changed due to digitalization and the permeation of technology into almost every aspect of our lives. These changes bring significant opportunities to improve the quality of work and the world overall.

But all changes also pose risks. For example, will digitalization lead to worker movements similar to those of the 20th century that followed the technological changes to work caused by the industrial revolution? The worker revolutions that happened between 1900 and 1970 led to many positive changes, but also created massive and often violent social unrest. Are we facing a similar path? How can we ensure the changes to work created by digitalization lead to economic prosperity without creating social calamity?

How the human revolution differs

It’s impossible to predict whether we are facing another era of revolution like what we went through 100 years ago. But what we know for sure is that technology is once again fundamentally changing the nature of work. Digitalization is dividing the world into two distinct labor markets. One market holds highly skilled jobs that demand constant learning, while the other contains low skilled jobs that require little training and are at constant risk of being automated. On one hand, workers performing high skilled jobs are likely to be in demand and well paid. On the other hand, workers performing low skilled jobs are likely to be competing in a job market containing a surplus of unskilled labor, resulting in dismal career prospects.

As we saw in the industrial revolution, a growing gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is not a good formula for maintaining stable societies. But it’s important to note the nature of today’s change is also quite different from 100 years ago. The industrial revolution replaced complex craft and artisan jobs with more simplistic factory and mechanized jobs focused on performing repetitive tasks. The digital revolution is actually having the opposite effect. Today, repetitive jobs are being automated and replaced by jobs that require learning new skills and capabilities. Consequently, job security in the digital economy is not about what you can do. It is about what you can learn to do.

Constant learning in a digitalized world

Success in a digitalized world requires constant learning. Every person has the ability to learn, although we may learn at different speeds. But to learn effectively, people need three things:

  1. Access to knowledge
  2. Time to learn
  3. The right psychological conditions to enable effective learning.

Access to knowledge has almost become a non-issue in the digital world. The problem is finding the right information and having time to digest it. This will require equipping employees with better tools to find information and ensuring jobs are structured to provide adequate time to process it.

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The need for a supportive environment

The third element for effective learning is probably the most challenging. People are most effective at learning when they feel motivated, supported, and safe. Motivation grows as people see a link between what they are doing and things they value as important. This is about giving people a sense of purpose to their work. Feeling supported is about creating communities that encourage and enable learning. People do better when they are part of a group that appreciates and supports their contributions. Safety is about giving people confidence and security that they are cared for as people. It is about creating a community that values and supports the health and well-being of its members.

People can overcome all manner of challenges when they have a clear sense of purpose, feel part of a trusted team, and are secure that the health and well-being of themselves and loved ones will be provided for. How people react to change depends largely on whether they are motivated, supported, and safe. When these conditions exist, people see change as opportunities for growth. When these things are missing people become disillusioned, depressed, anxious, and fearful. This makes it difficult for them to learn, and as a result change becomes a vicious circle of adversity, anxiety, and failure.

The disruptions caused by digitalization contain the elements needed to start a human revolution. But the 20th century clearly showed that not all revolutions focused around work are good. Whether the next human revolution creates more good than bad will depend on our ability to use technology to ensure people profit from change instead of being crushed by it. This starts by managing people in a way that supports effective learning. Specifically, making sure people get a sense of purpose from their work, feel connected to their colleagues, and feel secure and cared for by organizations and broader society overall.

Steven Hunt, Ph.D., SPHR, is Director of Business Transformation at SuccessFactors. Previously he was Chief Scientist at Kronos Incorporated, guides development of technology enabled talent management solutions. His experience spans many industries including retail, healthcare, dining, manufacturing, information technology, and transportation. An active author and speaker, Dr. Hunt regularly presents at conferences and has written dozens of articles for trade and peer-reviewed journals. He is also author of Hiring Success, a book published by the Society of Human Resource Management on the use of staffing assessment tools. He holds a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology and a B.A. in applied mathematics.