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?


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 …


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.


Blended Education

blog post I had written recently was what I was reminded of when I read this one about the Blossoms program, reason being that this was quite the type of delivery mechanism that I was talking about.

The idea here is simple … video recordings of lectures by a panel of expert teachers which form the backbone of education delivery across schools. This enables standard education delivery, while at the time making sure the best teachers are available to deliver classes to students across cities and villages, including in places where these top teachers would typically not want to go. Follow up this lecture with interactions at the classroom level, where the teacher running the class builds up on the video, and takes the students into interactions to discuss the content delivered, and ensure understanding of this content to all the students.

This logic of interactions can be extended to lab exercises too, as well as project reports, where the theoretical concepts are delivered in an electronic way, while the application of these concepts, including lab experiments, and the discussions among students are conducted face-to-face.

Needless to say, this method can also be extended to the L&D domain. The idea here being that with this mechanism, the L&D team can bring experts from across the world to the desktop of the learner, but the learning interaction doesnt necessarily end there (which it would in the classical e-learning method, which is still a dominant method in most organizations), and is extended with the learning interaction being extended to face-to-face (now face-to-face here could either be an actual face-to-face session, or a virtual face-to-face session), where learner interactions can happen, and learners can be presented with illustrations, case studies, and more detailed inputs, including, very importantly, inputs which are company-specific. These, of course, could be applicable both in traditional one-to-many training interventions, or in one-to-one coaching methods.


Changing Education

About blogging, I find, the ideas are relatively simple to define and build upon, while the topic is the difficult part. The topic being done, let’s get to the idea of this post.

There are two basic problems with education delivery today, I feel. One is the shortage of skilled teachers, and the other is the piecemeal approach to concepts taught to children. Let’s look at these one by one.

When talking about shortage of skilled teachers, I don’t mean at the aggregate level. The problem facing education is that while in pockets skilled teachers are available, there are also pockets where they are not. In the age of technology, this gap should be one that should be easy to bridge. Having said that, I believe that on can’t rely on purely virtual education delivery when introducing a new subject, which is what is the a of the education system for the most part. So we might need to look at a blended approach towards doing that. For this blended approach, content taught could be divided into three parts: pure theory, guided problem-solving, and practical application. Concepts of a subject could be taught through recorded lectures, for which a panel of distinguished teachers could be identified from the vast pool available. This would help being the best teachers to students in areas where they are not available. At the same time, this would standardize the delivery of basic concepts. Building upon these concepts, to develop skills of applying these concepts, a set of real-life scenarios could be developed. These would need to be delivered in-person, and would help students to learn how these concepts could be applied to solve problems. These could be simulations or case studies, depending on the requirements of the course being taught. Building on these would be labs to experiment and to apply concepts, as required.

The other aspect is the piecemeal approach to teaching. Children are taught mathematics and physics and economics and history as separate subjects. The concepts they learn and their application are demarcated by subject, while in reality, these subjects are interrelated, and so also should their teaching be. To address this, and to develop holistic problem-solving skills, which enable students to see the big picture, appreciate systems, and building systemic thinking, classwork, homework, and exams should be based on a systemic approach, where students are able to see the system as a whole, understand it in it’s entirety, and be able to understand impact of one thing on another.