What does the future of work look like? If we have automation of vehicles and other robots to do manual labor, and AI to make decisions, then what kind of work will remain for people to do? This is an important question, because investment in re-skilling projects must happen now. I argue it’s not about the kind of work people will do, but how we organize ourselves to help us transition to a world of automation. Our re-skilling efforts should be constructed around small group interactions and experiential learning. In other words, train people to work in small teams.
A key problem with any re-skilling effort is that training assumes an individual is either not working or has time to dedicate to learning. For many, the imperative of earning a wage and other life obligations (family, etc.) restricts people from going to school to learn new skills. Instead of focusing on training a core skill, bring people together in small teams with an objective, and train skills while the team produces value. This will allow people to learn and at the same time be productive.
Most repetitive tasks are not team-oriented. Truck drivers do not work in teams. Call center personnel can work from home. But, this doesn’t mean these individuals don’t interact often and constantly with others as tasks are passed back and forth. Because historically the majority of individual work in many repetitive tasks can be done without reliance on a team work to function, the focus of re-skilling should be on building team competencies.
If an individual has the necessary abilities to work in a team, they will be more highly valued and more likely to find work. We know teams that work well together produce much more than teams with super-talented members that don’t cooperate well.
Organizing in small teams isn’t new. Early humans were organized in small bands, extended family units or tribes throughout most of history. The military uses small teams as a basic unit of organization – squads and platoons. Sports teams usually have a maximum 10-15 people playing at the same time. Agile methodology says the best sized teams are between 5 and 12. The list of examples demonstrating the successful organizing unit is a small number is endless.
Models exist that show re-skilling using teams is successful. In Chicago, a group, i.c, Stars, provides project based (team) learning. Students work in small teams to develop software. Each team is made up of coders, but also project manager/scrum masters, quality assurance and a analysts. Most of the participants come from some of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago, yet i.c. Stars has a 90+% placement rate. One key reason for the program’s success is the training is all done in the context of small groups using agile style organization.
We can also approach re-skilling by expanding our use of internships. Good internships place people in team settings, provide mentorship, and usually require interns to solve real problems. In this context, companies should avoid using interns for simple, repetitive, or unimportant “side” projects that may not provide true experiential training. More importantly, internship programs should be designed with tasks that require teams – the problem should be bigger than one person can solve.
As we all try to shape a future around the relentless impact of new technology, small but significant contributions to increase training and internships that focus our teams on experiential learning and immediate value production. Small teams support and build individuals, and help people find purpose and identity; which we will all need as automation radically changes our work environments.