Ricky Robinson
Accelerated change is affecting every aspect of our lives and has left the world in a state of overwhelm. Companies need to develop new strategies for resilience and propulsion to find into the future, at individual, company, community, and infrastructure levels.

 

In a brilliant new piece of work, Thomas Friedman (author of The World is Flat) not only gives us a great synthesis of why the world feels so overwhelming right now, but also provides us with sage advice on how to cope with the accelerated change and even succeed into the future, at individual, company, community, and infrastructure levels.

This commentary considers and builds on his thesis at the individual and company levels for now, leaving his community and social/infrastructure themes for a later date. The pace of change – technological (driven by Moore’s law), socio-political and environmental – is outpacing that of the human adaptability to change, and it’s overwhelming. Not long ago (200 years), uncomfortable change was happening every 100 years or so. Since the industrial revolution, it has been happening every 30 years. Now in this era of accelerated change, it happens every five years. Mobile apps, big data, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, machine learning, the self-driving car…these are rushing at us at unprecedented speeds. And the bad news is that not only are we not coping, but those of us that fall behind do so at an accelerating rate! The winds of change of the 1960s have now become gale force!

Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, was correct to predict in 1965 that the processing power for computers would double every two years. To illustrate the impact of this technological change, (and also to show what could be possible if we applied our minds in the same way in different areas I suspect), Friedman quotes an example of a 1971 Volkswagen: subject to the same change as the microchip, a VW today would go at a speed of 483 000 kilometres per hour and would travel 3,2 million kilometres per 3,8 litres of petrol, which would cost 52 cents!

Environmental change is another of the great Accelerators. Friedman points out that the Holocene epoch of the last 11 500 years has been a sweet spot out of which we are rapidly threatening to push the earth. Since 1950, there has been vast acceleration of the human impact on its key ecosystems. And with another two billion people predicted to inhabit the earth in the next 30 years, unsustainable pressure is being applied to the system.

The workplace is being globalised, digitised, and roboticised at a scale and speed never seen before. Friedman suggests that those jobs of the future that won’t be replaced by machines will be what he calls STEMpathy jobs – a blend of technical (science, technology, engineering, and maths) and high-interpersonal skills.

Because society, organisations, and individuals themselves have not been able to cushion the impact of these changes, Friedman suggests that people have felt and will continue to feel a loss of home. In response, they will resist change and reach for a protective wall, no matter how self-defeating that may be. Hence, we witness Brexit, Trump, forces of nationalism, and other macro behaviour patterns today.

Is there a solution to cope with this change?

At an individual level, Friedman recommends high doses of self-motivation to tap into the global flows for work and learning and fully engage an approach of lifelong learning. What we learned at school or university becomes almost instantly dated. Organisations can no longer afford in-house training of people given this rate of change, especially with the increased likelihood of people learning and quitting their jobs before companies realise a return on that investment. Education must be re-tooled to maximise the skills and attributes that are/will be needed: writing, reading, coding, creativity, communication, grit, critical thinking, lifelong learning, entrepreneurship, and improvisation are all recommended as relevant and important learnings from Friedman.

With an eye on Africa, the WEF Future of Jobs report suggests that 41 percent of all work activities in South Africa are susceptible to automation and that 39 percent of core skills required across occupations will be wholly different by 2020.

As a Performance Optimisation Company tuned in to the conversations of our clients and obstacles to their progress in the change-storm, we would contribute to the lifelong learning and increased self-motivation themes as follows:

  • Help our people feel more secure: provide a secure base (see the work of George Kohlrieser and Simon Sinek in this regard).
  • Improve processes: 15 years ago with Jim Collins, it was First who, then what that the Good to Great companies espoused. Now, we reckon it is First how, who, and what – all at the same time!
  • Optimise digital acuity: a set of skills, knowledge, and attitudes that enables us to engage in the accelerating world of technological advancement. These would typically include: formation and data literacy, communication and collaboration, digital content creation, digital safety, and problem solving.
  • Augment change agility: the ability of a person to respond to change quickly. Key to this is a growth mindset (see Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck).
  • Augment systems thinking: an ability to quickly understand the intricacies of unfamiliar and complicated processes, organisations, or mechanisms and develop and communicate solutions for these. Friedman uses the metaphor of the rower in white water to illustrate how we can best cope with accelerating change. The temptation is to put one’s oar in the water to slow down. The outcome would be disaster as the boat would capsize. What we have to do to cope is paddle – at the very least at the same speed as the rushing water. It’s a scary prospect. But if we can manage it, it could be exhilarating and fun too.

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