A lot has been written about the future of work. The tenor of some recent discussions resemble the social media hype from five years ago: lots of pretty pictures with little research or data behind the pictures. While there is valuable research and qualified researchers working in this area, the noise in the system is extreme. It takes effort and commitment to quality to conduct research, analyze results and it takes experience to understand the impact.

I wish I could simply state -- "here I am, an expert, ready to set the record straight" -- but that isn't the case. But I can call BS on specific points that have been written and are simply wrong. You can't talk about the future while ignoring facts, history and experience. Yes, the technology is changing rapidly and the human response to these changes is complex, but guesswork will not help us get through the evolution.

Building a Baseline 

Some of the most fundamental of concepts are misunderstood, or worse, ignored. Terms such as Data, Information and Knowledge are used interchangeably and often incorrectly. The future of work -- defining what needs to be changed, when it will be changed and how -- will take more than headline grabbing, tweetable snippets and infographics that lack context and instead rely too heavily on informal conversations with executives and storytelling. It's fine to buck traditional thinking, but a strong baseline is important.

The future will include lots and lots of connected devices, referred to by some as the Internet of Things (IoT). The impact of IoT will be big, but these devices are a separate and distinct conversation from the one at hand. Sameer Patel reminds us in a post of the practical need for specificity when discussing questions of the future -- an element that is too often missing:

Pundits, strategists and even product managers often talk about future states with no timelines. In other words, ‘I predict that in the future, X will happen.’"

People with little experience working inside a structured organization won't move us forward. We need cartographers and bridge builders, who have done this before, as it has happened before. Experience is a critical element -- not to be overlooked -- but it often is.

To describe the future of work, people should start with a clear understanding of what knowledge is and what it means in the context of getting jobs done.

Information is data endowed with relevance and purpose. Converting data into information requires knowledge." Peter Drucker, "The Coming of the New Organization," Harvard Business Review, 1988.

One of the most important parts of the discussion is that of knowledge: How it is shared, who owns it and how it is gained.

The Path From Data to Understanding

The progression from Data to Understanding has a few interpretations, but the baseline is DIKW: Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom. The model has undergone revision and many people have devoted careers to figuring this out. My simplified version:

  • Point 0: Data is different from Information, which is different from Knowledge
  • Point 1: Knowledge is not a commodity, Understanding is the goal
  • Point 2: Being smart is the situational ability to apply Information and Knowledge
  • Point 3: Learning, in the work world, is contextual, not connecting to a device

This is dumbed down (hooray irony), reduced to a level where it can fit into the conversation. Is it perfect? No. Is it a good place to start? Yes.

In fields of specialized knowledge, we aim to render an account that is plain and simple, yet does no violence to the difficulty of the subject, so that the uninformed reader can understand us while the expert cannot fault us. We try to keep in mind a saying attributed to Einstein -- that everything must be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler. (Source)

Many who profess to understand the future of work are surface learners, more interested in the ability to recall information, rather than understand the context around it. Deep learners view learning as a product of experience, striving towards understanding. This concept needs to be applied not only to this specific conversation, but the future of work in general.

How does this help us progress to the future of work? For one, many treat information as an independent variable in relation to knowledge. It is true that many people hoard information (knowledge is power), but the reasons are critical to understand if the future is going to include sharing of information. The value lies in the sharing of the interpretation of information, which some would call knowledge. Current workers are not focused on knowledge, they are focused on data, and a bit on information, believing data is the key.

The transformation from information to knowledge has a special, almost magical quality to it. It’s nearly tangible -- that 'aha' moment when things come together and you 'get it.' Take a moment to recall some 'aha' moments. Think about what happened and also how you felt -- enlightened, pleased, relieved, inspired, empowered … and more!" Mike Eisenberg, "Information Alchemy: Transforming Data and Information into Knowledge and Wisdom" (pdf)

At some point in the distant future, devices may in fact contain knowledge, but consider what needs to happen before that time. An important skill in the here and now are data scientists, people who work to transform data into information. The next logical step, which is starting to occur, will be scientists who transform information into knowledge. The next steps will take a lot more time. We can -- and should -- talk about just how much time.

A Deeper Understanding of Learning is Required

I know that I am not smart enough to define the future of work. I will participate in the conversation and likely be on the front edge, leading the charge. But if I may make a simple request: change the surface learning to a deeper learning that will expand into a deeper understanding.

Corporations need to look at their employees as a Community and not just as a means to the bottom line. We’re all involved in creating our career paths (at Sugar) .... Build infrastructure and programs to support the growth and evolving needs of the employees and environment," said Sherry Pulvers, VP of People and Places at SugarCRM 

Some very recent, excellent, research led by Bill Jensen looked at what's required to make the future of work happen. He identified "the biggest fundamental shift in capacity is in freeing people to do their best." Closely linked to this is employees' relationships with their companies.

Summarized, respondents’ views toward their companies: “We’re happy… We can achieve our dreams… Just not with you. You are not meeting are needs.”

  • Seventy percent said they are happy
  • Sixty-nine percent believe in their own ability to achieve their dreams
  • Seventy-two percent are hopeful and optimistic about the future
  • But only 29 percent believe they can achieve their dreams where they currently work

And two-thirds of that 29 percent are executives and entrepreneurs or work in entrepreneurial environments. Only 9.8 percent [33 percent of 29 percent] of line-level workers and mid-managers working in non-startup environments believe they can achieve their dreams where they currently work.

The Main Takeaways From This Rant?

  • In the IoT, devices do not hold Knowledge, unless your device's name is Watson,
  • Learning for learning's sake is not a future of work concept,
  • Experience will continue to be a critical teacher, an outcome of jobs-to-be-done
  • Technology will make collaboration easier, but is a personal and cultural issue
  • Finally, people will be required to move up the chain towards Wisdom.