Learning for the future of work

I’ve been looking at the SITRA studies on Perspectives on new work: exploring emerging conceptualisations edited by Esko Kilpi which includes lots of different perspectives on learning and the future of work and is a really interesting read

Photo by Phil and Pam

The study explores learning and work in the knowledge-based or weightless economy and knowledge work where such work is understood as ‘interaction between interdependent people’. As this paper from 1993 suggests, the idea of knowledge work as reliant on networked interdependence is not especially new. But the perspective in the SITRA report is clearly utopian in, for example, describing a worker as free to “choose what tasks to take up, and when to take them up” (p.13). In contrast, Buscher (2014, p.224) identifies knowledge workers as a nomadic workforce “trapped in mobility whether they are high earning professionals with bulimic work patterns”. So the freedom of choice is curtailed by the realities of ensuring a steady enough income. This precariousness for many occupations is taken as a sustained feature if the future of work. But the idea of the interdependent task-based worker does resonate in terms of the competences and capacities of knowledge-workers.

My interest here is on the implications of this conceptualisation of the future of work for professional and workplace learning and competence development. The report emphasises the threats of automation to low-skills occupations. However, this emphasis should really be on the threat to routine and procedural work. Frey and Osborne note that employment growth in developed economies is in both low-skilled and in high-skilled occupations (involving non-routine cognitive work, see Dvorkin 2016) while ‘skilled’ occupations in the middle have seen a sharp decline.

I’ve previously highlighted one quote from the report here emphasising that the world is complex where standardised and procedural thinking no longer applies. In this future of work, employability depends on attributes of creativity, problem-solving, curiosity and communication rather than lists of domain-specific skills. The SITRA report, therefore, makes the case for the attributes of curiosity and cites Piaget “Knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do” as a key competence. A report from NESTA similarly emphasises fluency of ideas (being able to generate lots of ideas) and active learning (being able to identify the implications of new information for future problem-solving and decision-making) based around understanding of systems-thinking. The NESTA report goes on to argue that that “the future workforce will need broad-based knowledge in addition to the more specialised features that will be needed for specific occupations“.

How has higher education reacted to the trends identified in these two reports? The graduate attributes framework at the University of Edinburgh include curiosity linked to lifelong learning as well as the skills of problem solving, and critical and reflective thinking. But, in the vast majority of cases, courses and qualifications place subject-matter discipline and knowledge front and centre. To find courses that are centred on curiosity, change and innovation, then perhaps more experiential, opportunity-based learning models such as at the Knowmads School. But does deep subject knowledge in combination with creative, open problem solving attributes be the combination required to address truly ‘wicked’ problems of University College London’s Interdisciplinary degree?


Photo by Phil and Pam available here (CC BY 2.0) 

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