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Megatrends for this decade – XXXVIII

The changing relevance of knowledge and the ways knowledge keeps its value and can be accessed is a factor in the shaping of the future of work in this decade. This graphic shows the decreasing half-life of knowledge, from an average of 30 years in the last century to an average of 6 years today. Furthermore the knowledge learnt today at school is not the one that may be needed on the workplace. As shown in the graphic, 65% of children entering the primary school will end up in works that are not existing today and whose need of knowledge is difficult to predict. Image credit: CNBC – Future of Work Report

Forces reshaping work in this decade

The acceleration of the Digital Transformation resulting from the pandemic and the changing way of working cannot be used as a measuring stick for what may happen to work and workforce in this decade. In the short term it is obvious that pandemic had/has a huge impact, however over a longer period of time the changes will depend on other forces. Quite a few companies are just waiting for the end of the pandemic to rewind the clock and go back to biz as usual. The point that pandemic has taught us a lesson and therefore companies will change their way of doing business to be prepared for a possible new pandemic is not, I think, the way biz works, nor as humans behave, unfortunately. We are quite sure that an eruption of the Vesuvius volcano will happen, yet people are still building houses on its slopes… Likewise for pandemics; we know from historical data that a new pandemic happens every 100 years on the average (the present one hit right on time!) but a hundred years for a business is a long period of time. If changing the way of working is done for achieving an advantage that can be reaped in a hundred years time, but may have some disadvantages in the short term, that will just not happen (unless some kind of regulation is being enforced, but this is also unlike, since the regulators take into account the biz landscape. If a regulation will put companies at competitive disadvantage they will think twice before enforcing it).

Hence, in discussing this decade Megatrend on the future of work we should consider the driving forces reshaping the work landscape, considering the pandemic impact as an accelerator of change where changes are in line with those driving forces and disregarding other changes that most likely will be rolled back once the epidemic is over.

To me these driving forces are:

  • distributed knowledge – Human Cloud
  • Gig Economy
  • artificial intelligence driving automation
  • Distributed knowledge shared by humans and machines

It is obvious that to take effect these forces need to leverage on technology (features, availability and affordability) and it is also true the opposite, that tech evolution strengthen these forces. Hence a reinforcing cycle that has already started to take shape.

I already addressed the economic, demographic and environmental (ecological awareness) factors that are shaping, fostering and constraining the evolution of work in this decade in the first part of the discussion of this Megatrend, Now I am going to focus on these tech-related forces.

Distributed Knowledge – Human Cloud

A nice graphic placing in relation the organisation of work, from being based on individuals to being based on a “crowd”, with the client relation, from interacting with the labour provider to interacting with a service. Image credit: Staffing Industry Analysts

It is quite obvious that knowledge is disseminated more and more and we have now plenty of tools to foster the growth of this disseminated knowledge, starting from its sharing to step by step improvements (internet and the web made this possible in an efficient way) as well as to make sense out of this distributed knowledge (we are just starting in this area).

Clearly the “location” of knowledge matters, since it relates to accessibility, credibility, ownership … and quite some effort is focussing not on access and sharing, rather on protection and encapsulation.

It is nothing new, actually. Human beings as knowledge repositories have been the platform of distributed knowledge for millennia. What has changed more recently is that this human distributed knowledge, also addressed more recently with respect to the leveraging of such knowledge as “the human cloud”, has become more and more accessible as a whole, as communication among humans has increased its effectiveness (you can connect two “minds” in a matter of seconds, independently from where their “brain container” is located). The adoption of a standard language, like English, has further improved the communication.

The Human Cloud is seen both as the ensemble on distributed knowledge (and skills that sometimes are more important for industry) provided by humans and as the infrastructure connecting this distributed human knowledge and ensuring access to it. The yearly investment on this infrastructure has reached 80B$ and it is expected to keep growing in the coming years.

Part of the “story” when looking at the human cloud is about mobility of humans (both physical and virtual). Companies have been used to consider work on (their) premises and to tailor salary ranges to the cost of life in that area. This approach does not work when considering the human cloud. People keep moving around and it does not make sense to correlate salary to a specific location. Notice that a few companies, as are allowing remote working in this pandemic time are also imposing wage cuts on the assumption that if you no longer need to live in San Francisco you can live with a lower salary.

The existence of an accessible Human Cloud will increase competition among workers (at least certain types of workers, particularly in the technical sectors and for all activities that can be delivered “spot”) but will also make competition for access to these resources much more intense and the need for an effective human cloud infrastructure support crucial. Also challenging is the assessment of knowledge (and skill) to get the one that fits best the need at hand. You don’t want to overshoot, and also you may not be able to rely on previous choices since knowledge obsolescence is just accelerating as shown in the first graphic.

It is reasonable to expect that the Distributed Knowledge and the creation of effective Human Clouds are going to reshape work processes and the workforce, fuelling an extended Gig Economy.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.