The Future Work Economy

A topic I have been thinking about for a while now is what is the future of work, and of employment. There are a number of questions which come up, to which I must say I don’t have any answers.

One question I think about is the expected mismatch between the demand and availability of work in the future. Another is about the possible mismatch between skills requirement and availability.

Coming to the question of expected mismatch between work demand and availability, one dimension we need to consider, when building future scenarios is overall population. We are told repeatedly that technology is meant to make our lives easier, so we can spend more time with our loved ones. While thats a nice idea, what that means is that in the future, we are likely going to see much more work being automated at a global level, with people having to work less and less. This means lower demand for human resources, which could lead to a future this op-ed from Washington Post describes.

That said, however, there is another aspect which we need to consider. This is the fact that while a number of traditional occupations might not be around a few decades from now, there are likely going to be a number of new occupations, or even industries which could be generated over a period of time, as this piece from University of Kent tells us. While video games have been around for a while, no one could have anticipated the level of growth the gaming industry would see, for instance. New occupations and industries, of course, would require different skills, something we need to prepare our children for.

The other dimension is the mismatch between skills demand and availability. With Europe growing older, for instance, Europe will likely need to import workers, and with Africa growing younger, its quite simple to see where the additional workers required would come from.

This is an illustration of possible imbalances we could see in the future. The larger point here is this … the regions of the world which are well-off are likely to have fewer people in working age-groups in the future, while the regions which would have larger working-age populations would likely be unable to give access to the kind of education required to meet the needs of the job market.

Does this mean that it might be important for certain regions of the world to subsidise education and skill-building in other parts of the world? Should Japan, for instance, invest in education/skill-building in India? In other words, are we headed toward a far more integrated world as the viable solution to the problems of tomorrow?

God and Science

Topics on which people hold very strong beliefs … sometimes these beliefs are no more than just those. While on the one hand some of those who believe in God take Scripture literally, and will tell you that indeed the world was made in 6 days, or that there was indeed a time when snakes talked or horses flew. Little does it occur to them that maybe these stories are more allegorical, and one must look into their subliminal meaning which seems to be a consistent characteristic of Scripture to get a true understanding. Scientists on the other hand use these same stories, read at their superficial level to try to prove that religion flies in the face of logic.

There is another aspect of the scientific discourse which tells us that there is no ‘need’ for God since all phenomena can be explained by science, those which can’t be explained today would well be explained at some point. Let’s take an example to see the folly of this logic. Let’s say you have to go from place A to place B. Now, you could do this commute on foot or by bus. Now, since your commute can be explained by walking, there is therefore no ‘need’ for the bus and therefore the bus doesn’t exist.

Another logic which is most prevalent is that there is no proof of God. Now, one could also on the other hand say that there is no proof for the non-existence of God, but then that takes us into a different byway, so for the moment let’s shelve that one. Let’s say, for instance, if you are asked to cook a meal with a pen, crayons, toothpicks, and a screwdriver and wrench. Doesn’t sound logical, does it? Fact is, different tools are meant to be used for different purposes and extending this it’s easy to see why science has not, maybe will not, been able to prove the existence of God … that as a tool science isn’t the right one.  Let’s try to analyze that. Science is essentially a study of this creation, maybe (if we keep the idea of the multiverse aside for a moment) of the universe. This means that science, meant to study nature, isn’t meant to study whence nature came from.

Is that why so many scientists are so antagonistic to the idea of God?

Predictive Learning

In todays L&D landscape, the way businesses determine who should participate in what training isnt far away from some sort of conjuring act. More often than not, the result of this is a mixed bag, and many of the L&D professionals I speak to tell me that the L1 scores (based on the Kirkpatrick model) are more often than not tending towards the lower end of the spectrum.

There are typically two ways a business determines training participation. One is based on mandated training (usually related to promotion/growth), while the other is nomination by the business manager. Both of these are based on picking up from a ‘menu’ of available programs, and neither really takes into consideration the actual learning needs of the individual.

This is where the idea of predictive learning comes in. The idea here is simple … today, with the technology available to us, especially in the Big Data/Analytics domains, the data about what has worked in the past in what context is available to the organization in a large scale. This data is available based on training, HR, and operations/business data. This rich data can be leveraged to determine what is the best training solution which would likely work in a particular employee context. Like Big Data, this neednt look at the reason (or connection) between cause and effect, rather, look at the linkages as they have been seen in the past.

An important aspect of this picture is that this shifts the focus from training and learning, and from L&D to the individual learner, and makes the entire process people-centric.

One concern with this, though, could be that the outcome of the requirements could be way too granular, and too tailored to individual needs, so as to be unviable from the delivery perspective. More about this later …

Conversation Context

If you are on WhatsApp, you are probably on a host of groups, which you have, in all probability muted. Ever seen a pattern in the conversations in these groups? If someone started a group, and you connect with old friends after say 20 years, the first few days are about exchanging notes, and reminiscing about old days. After that the lull comes in the conversation, and this is when most groups become about forwarded messages or jokes.

Friends from college have a group, which is the place for college-style conversations. After a while, the conversations turn towards politics, and discussions about the world, pretty much the way it used to be back in college (boys don’t grow up, remember?!). However, due to a number of reasons, we decided to start a separate group about political/intellectual debates. Yes, intellectual indeed, even if I myself say so. Over time, the original group, which all of us are still members of has become a group for forwarded messages.

The reason is simple … context. No conversation can happen between two people without some modicum of a shared context. Take the context away, and the conversation can’t last. As college friends, we have gone different ways in our lives. However, there is a strong shared context of our time together at college, but beyond that, the shared context is that of the world around us. And hence, these are the two topics on which conversations can sustain.

In other words, context is key.

School Exams

There is, for obvious interest, quite a bit of interest in the subject of subjects, or, rather, in the subject of examinations on those subjects. The newspapers recently reported that Central Advisory Board of Education has recommended re-introduction of the class X exams. Another subject the article talks about is the policy of student detention based on exam results.

This brings us to a basic question … what is the purpose of exams? While there is definitely a need within the education system to assess achievement of learning objectives, the problem begins when exams are seen as a mechanism to weed out students who may not meet the criterion of meeting learning objectives. If the intent is to ensure that students learn the things they are supposed to, would studying the same thing again help a student understand better than the first time? This is akin to repeating something in the hope that just by repeating it, the other person will understand it. If the student didnt understand it the first time, isnt it more than likely that he wont understand the next time either?

Instead of having the student go through the entire year, it would be more helpful for the student if the focus was to be on topics the student was facing difficulty in understanding. A quick look at the answer sheet for the exam will give the answer. This, though, wont scale without the use of technology to support this, and today, we have the technology to move assessment in this direction.

Another aspect is to find out what we are testing. Are we testing memory of the subject, or are we testing understanding? If we are trying to assess achievement of learning objectives, we need to focus on understanding. This means the pattern of testing needs to change towards application of concepts from simple recitation of concepts, and we, as a nation, probably need an examination/assessment policy to complement the education and learning frameworks in the country.

What Do Marks Measure?

We are told that marks (or grades) and qualifications are signals which serve to tell prospective employers about the worthiness of candidates for jobs … this as per classical economic theory. However, reading this article makes one think … what are marks measuring in the contemporary examination system in India?

There are a few possible things one could deduce from here:

  1. Children graduating schools are made up of different stuff, and are extremely bright.
  2. The University folks have lost it.
  3. The exam system is not exactly measuring earning.

Back when we were in school (this is another millenium, remember!) getting 80% in English meant you were really, really good at the subject. Mere mortals managed anything in the low to mid-70s, with some folks managing the 60s. Today, we are seeing a cut-off of 100% for Computer Science courses. If this is based on PCM (Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics), then one can assume that the kids are graduating school with exceptional understanding of the subjects. However, by the time these kids graduate, we find that corporates struggle to meet their hiring numbers. On the other hand, scoring 90s in English today should mean the kids should have an exceptional grasp of the language, but that isnt borne by observation.

Personally, I believe that the exam system is barking up the wrong tree (for biologists), or climbing up the wrong pole (for the rest of us). Marks dont seem to be measuring learning, though I dont know what they are measuring. To get a real understanding, exams need to test the kids, not on straight application of formulae, but to ask questions two or three steps removed from the data. And this isnt quite difficult to do.

Virtual Education

Over a period of time, I have written about how virtual education can be used to address some of the problems facing education today, namely, shortage of good faculty, and the high cost of getting high-quality education to a large number of students. Few days back (which is when I had made a note to write this, but didnt quite get round to it, maybe because of the New Year holidays, but then, that would be just an excuse) I read about virtual courses offered by IITs being attended by students from other colleges (please help with a link if you could find … have been searching, but not to much avail). In this, the college from which the participating students come from decides whether they want to give credit to students for the courses they attend virtually, but if they do, then this is a step in the direction I have written about. For the participating colleges, there is, of course, the additional aspect of building the infrastructure to support the learning around these courses, in the form of labs, Q&A sessions, tests, and so on, but there is a benefit too. This would arise in the form of the content being made available to students, around which the learning then takes place.

Taking this one step further, is the possibility of building Centres of Excellence, hosted by one or two colleges, and have courses around these topics being delivered virtually by Professors from these colleges. For instance, these centres could be like Material Science, Thermodynamics, Engines and Turbo-Machines, Operations Research, and so on. Based on mutual agreement, specific colleges could be identified as CoEs for each of these, and courses delivered on these areas by Professors from these colleges, with students participating from all participating colleges. This would give the benefit of standard, high-quality education being delivered to students across the country, without necessarily replicating faculty skills at multiple locations, and enhance access as well as address cost issues.

From here, the individual colleges could take over, in supporting the learning process around these courses. This would be in the form of Q&A, homework assignments, labs, case studies, projects, exams, and facilitating cross faculty-student collaboration. In this way, the participating colleges get access to world-class content, delivering colleges build a source of revenue, and there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The participating colleges give credits for these courses, manage the learning process, and give degrees based on their own criteria.