Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Becoming a maker of ideas

I've been giving a lot of thought to the concept of waves of history, or periods of change.  For example, not all that long ago a group of workers in England decided to try to stymie change, by destroying the looms that they felt were replacing their jobs.  The "Luddites" as they were called, were afraid of looming (sorry, couldn't pass it up) change and the incumbent shift in jobs and roles as automation replaced manual labor.  I'm oversimplifying here - there were many other factors that led to the Luddite revolt, but a lot of the anger that was displayed was focused on change, and the loss of status and skill.  In that day, people made things.  They prided themselves on their skills and knowledge about how to make things.

From makers of things to providers of services

Over time, we've accepted to some degree industrialization and even automation.  Increasingly we see factory workers here in the US rapidly replaced by machines, robots and artificial intelligence.  Why?  Because the machines and AI can do things repetitively, with so little variance and with so few safety concerns that even though machines cost far more than people initially, they are much less expensive in the long run, and don't need bathroom breaks or time off.   As our markets and capabilities have shifted, so too our focus.  Fifty years ago everyone wanted to be an engineer - to build stuff.   Today most college graduates want to be in finance or service industries.  Today we pride ourselves on making software, providing services, and moving money.  These are the winning attributes in the US economy.  But what happens when computers and AI do these jobs better than we do?  Certainly software and AI can write software, and the new craze in the financial world is using software and AI to manage money and make investments.  Will there be a Luddite-like revolution in the next decade as programmers and financial analysts suddenly rage against the machine?  And why not?  These are important, valuable and meaningful jobs that you can expect to be replaced in the next decade.

The next big wave

What will be left?  If we aren't makers of things or makers of services or developers of software or movers of money, what are the important, irreplaceable jobs that humans can fill and gain satisfaction from?  I should note here that there will always be jobs for makers (see Etsy if you don't believe that) but those jobs will rarely scale.  There will always be jobs for people willing to provide services, after all you can't outsource a haircut or get a robot to mow your grass - yet.  But as we look to the future we can see a significant amount of automation, increasing use of robots, the use of artificial intelligence and much more.  What happens to Uber drivers when autonomous cars drive us around?  And who is exploring this if not Uber themselves?

What's left for humans in this rather dire scenario, where jobs are outsourced not to other countries but to automation, AI, robots and machines?

Toffler and others predicted the future in books like Future Shock and Third Wave.  I think we are in a third wave, moving from makers of things to makers of services and experiences to makers of ideas.  The future belongs to those who can create and translate new insights and ideas into concepts that AI or machines can create and package as products or services.

We need to be doing these things now

If this view of the future holds any water, then it has some interesting implications.

First, it suggests that we need to completely rethink our educational system.  Our educational system was created to place reasonably competent workers with a broad but not necessarily deep set of skills on a production line or as middle managers.  What's going to be required in a third wave world of making and creating insights and ideas is less rigid conformance to the right answers and much more diversity and creativity of thought.  We are generating plenty of graduates with exactly the worse preparation for the emerging work world.  We need to be encouraging creativity, exploration and divergent thinking.  Instead we are muting creativity for conformity when we need to empower everyone to build creative skills.

Second, creative businesses don't need to scale as far or as rapidly as industrial companies, so we may need to rethink what it means to "build a business" as we become makers of ideas that are then scaled by AI, robots or machines.  In an idea maker world, we might have thousands of small boutique organizations surrounding fixed infrastructure that actually makes and scales creativity and ideas.  Humans can do what we were actually always primed to do - think and create - rather than lift and toil.  In a sense we are almost already there in some industries.  Entertainment has already entered this model, where almost anyone with a good idea and access to the internet can become an overnight sensation.  With a relatively simple camera, the ability to post to Youtube and the power of social media to connect to thousands or millions of viewers, it's easy for an entertainer or idea to spread quickly, at least where entertainment is concerned. What happens when we have other platforms that can quickly scale other types of ideas?

Third, we need to completely rethink and reform how we capture, manage and protect intellectual property.  The ideas these makers create need to be managed and protected.  In the future we'll need to extract more value from our ideas than from selling products and services.  Our current Patent and Trademark office is already overwhelmed by the number and diversity of ideas, and we can expect it to get worse.  Plus, the model is biased toward companies with deeper pockets that can afford to patent a lot of ideas and then sit on those patents, warding off competition.  Developing and obtaining a patent or trademark as a smaller company is difficult, and growing more time consuming and frustrating as the number of ideas and intellectual property grows.  A significant reset is in order - one that encourages more ideas and provides good protection at a fair price and is accessible to more inventors.

Fourth, larger companies will have to change corporate culture to identify and recognize the best ideas regardless of their origin.  The real test will selecting and implementing ideas that are the most valuable regardless of their origin.  Currently few companies are aggressively identifying and evaluating ideas and intellectual property that originate outside their four walls.  As more and more people become idea makers as opposed to thing makers, the wealth of ideas and intellectual property externally will be almost impossible to ignore.

What should the next generation do?

Whether you decide your best role is within a large company or as a contributor to a small company or the best alternative is simply to go it alone, the most valuable roles in the future will not be found in routine, day to day work that can be automated, or in pattern recognition or matching.  As Dan Pink has said, anything that can be automated or reduced to a consistent pattern will be automated.  The real question is: what roles are left for people to fill?  What can we do that machines and AI can't do well today?  We've got to become better at creating ideas, spotting the best ones and rapidly converting them into new products.  Speed, insight, innovation and agility are what will win in the future.

Find a company that incorporates and encourages creative thinking, is agile and can quickly adapt to rapidly changing market needs and expectations, that is in a business that values people and where the work can't be reduced to an algorithm.  Or, better yet, create your own company that is really good at discovering needs, creating solutions and defining and protecting intellectual property.  This is the third wave of human value creation.  Become a maker of ideas.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:50 AM


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