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How Knowledge Workers Can Prepare for the Future

By Dorie Clark

With artificial intelligence, machine learning, and self-driving cars reaching critical tipping points in their exponential growth, the future of work is a hot topic these days. Most of the public debate, quite sensibly, centers around the impact on lower-skilled workers whose jobs are most likely to be disrupted in the near future, such as truck drivers, cashiers, and the like.

But that ignores the very real challenge of how white-collar knowledge workers can prepare for the new economy. The impact of new technologies may take a while to affect them – though the former head of Google China disputes that, arguing that “In my opinion, the white-collar workforce gets challenged first—blue-collar work later.” As he told CNBC, “The white collar jobs are easier to take because they’re pure[ly] a quantitative analytical process. Reporters, traders, telemarketing, telesales, customer service, analysts, these can all be replaced by a software.”

But regardless of the timing, most agree change is coming for the professional class. The CEO of Deutsche Bank recently predicted that a “big number” of its 97,000 employees would ultimately be replaced by robots and declared that his accountants – previously considered the epitome of a safe professional job – “spend a lot of the time basically being an abacus.” We know what happened to those.

Even if one’s entire job isn’t displaced, a McKinsey Global Institute study declared that “as many as 45 percent of the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies,” including some of the duties of senior executives and CEOs.

So how can knowledge workers ready themselves for the onslaught of change? Of course, as with their blue collar counterparts, developing new skills is critical. But as I discussed during a recent Peter Drucker Forum roundtable on the future of work, there are important differences to keep in mind, as well. Here are three strategies knowledge workers can use to stay agile amidst changing workplace realities.

First, brand building is essential. Advice for lower-skilled workers often centers around things like how to optimize your resume to include relevant keywords, so you won’t be screened out by algorithms. That’s solid advice, but especially if you’re a more senior professional, you’ve already lost the battle if you’re relying on “cold” resume submissions to strangers to win a position.

Instead, take control of your personal brand by ensuring others, both inside and outside your company, know who you are. That means starting to speak at conferences, taking on leadership roles in professional organizations, and sharing your expertise through writing and other formats. Building your reputation enables you to be seen as an expert whom potential employers and clients will seek out – rather than an interchangeable, commoditized petitioner.

Second, it’s important to cultivate your network. That’s because a large number of positions – some put the figure at 70%-80% – are never publicly advertised, and are instead filled through networking or personal referrals. Without a broad network to apprise you of opportunities, you’ll never even hear about many of them. There’s another advantage to applying through a ‘warm lead’: the offer is usually better.

Employees who landed jobs through networking earned an average of six percent more, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Researchers speculated that may be because “better-connected workers had access to better jobs,” or because employers may have felt more reassured about the candidates because they were personally vouched for. Either way, there were clear benefits to cultivating a strong network.

Third, be strategic in your skills-building. While lower-skilled workers may require retraining because their entire industry (such as trucking) could be disrupted, the shifts for many white collar workers may be more subtle. Instead of training for an entirely new career, knowledge workers can benefit from learning adjacent skills and upgrading their core capabilities, such as interpersonal communication or persuasion skills.

During a recent gathering of prominent executive coaches that I attended, David Peterson – a top leadership development executive at Google – suggested that professionals should even seek to “suboptimize current performance to invest in adaptability for future performance.” That’s not going to fly for many lower-skilled workers: if you drive the truck poorly, or bungle the receipts at the register, you’re gone.

But white collar workers, especially more senior professionals, have somewhat greater latitude in structuring their time and agenda. Under those circumstances, it may make sense to – for instance – put in slightly less effort making your presentation slides perfect in order to spend that 15 minutes researching how to give better presentations, or push non-essential emails off by a day in order to carve out time for strategic thinking.

We live in a world where Oxford researchers suggest that 47% of U.S. jobs risk being lost in the coming disruption. Amidst these dire predictions, it may be easier for white collar workers to turn a blind eye, and assume these drastic changes won’t affect them. But exponential technology isn’t going away; by its nature, it will only accelerate. The smartest professionals will take action now, to ensure they’re prepared to reap the benefits of disruption, rather than fall victim to it.

Dorie Clark is a keynote speaker who also teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Entrepreneurial You, Reinventing You, and Stand Out, which was named the #1 Leadership Book of 2015 by Inc. magazine. A former presidential campaign spokeswoman, the New York Times described her as an “expert at self-reinvention and helping others make changes in their lives.” You can download her Stand Out self-assessment workbook.

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