By Robert Hickson 24/06/2019

There are at least three inter-related factors shaping the nature of work – technologies aiding or replacing human workers; off-shoring (businesses sending work to other countries where labour is cheaper); and a shift from specialist to generalist skills.

The latter is well discussed by Jerry Useem in the Atlantic.

The US Navy’s been experimenting with “hybrid sailors” – not part man-part machine, or interspecies crosses, but employing crew who can do a range of tasks rather than just one role. That’s a practice spreading in the commercial world too. Many journalists, for example, now do their own photography, videography, blogging, and tweeting, as well as the other aspects of reporting.

While new technologies can play a factor, other things are important too, such as the availability of workers and the increasingly dynamic nature of some work or roles.

For many years some, particularly in the technology world, have been promoting the concept of “T-shaped people” – having breadth as well as a depth of skills or knowledge.

As automation takes over more routine tasks, it is anticipated that people will focus on handling more unexpected and non-routine tasks.

People who have ”fluid intelligence” – the ability to shift tasks quickly and/or pick up new skills rapidly could be favoured over those with  “crystallized intelligence” – deeper knowledge and know-how in certain areas – and those who display more task “conscientiousness” (stick at a task no matter what).

“High in fluid intelligence, low in experience, not terribly conscientious, open to potential distraction—this is not the classic profile of a winning job candidate. But what if it is the profile of the winning job candidate of the future?” Useem

This has big implications – the need for fewer employees; different skill sets; and the relevance of knowledge-intensive higher education. As Useem worries:

“Is the value of true expertise in serious decline?”

As more of a specialist Useem didn’t find this particularly appealing – all that effort and stress going into building a “professional identity” wasted. What happens to those who aren’t good at being agile?

Research shows that expertise can already be over valued. Fisher and Keil – ironically experts in expertise – concluded:

  “More knowledge can sometimes lead to greater metacognitive ignorance.”

 This sits adjacent to the Dunning-Kruger effect:

“If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent … The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

So, there’s potentially a minimally ignorant sweet spot between having too much and too little knowledge.

And while deliberate practice is important in some fields, it may not have as big an effect on performance as many imagine.

The future won’t involve a wholesale replacement of deep knowledge with quick learners.  Some types of work – medicine, teaching, airline pilot, science, sport do call for deep knowledge. And in many problem-solving situations you’ll need to understand the system as a whole and not just identify symptoms.  But the balance and value we place on different types of abilities is changing.

Useem notes that the Navy’s experiment hasn’t, for various reasons, been a complete success, but it isn’t a failure either. It is “the scene of everyday trial, error, and adjustment.”

That’s how the future of work will play out, in my dilettantean view


Featured photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash

0 Responses to “Jill of all trades, and mistress of some”

  • A lovely piece, thanks for that.
    The contrary view to the aphorism adapted in the title above was expressed by August De Morgan, who said (I cannot find a source just now, so from memory…): “A man should know everything of something, and something of everything”.
    Apologies, but he did say “man” rather than “woman” or “person”. De Morgan was at one time tutor of Ada Byron/Lovelace, often touted as the first computer programmer; on the other hand he advised her that advanced mathematics was too much for the female brain. Thankfully, we have moved on a bit since then. I do like the sentiment De Morgan expressed in the sentence cited, though.

    • Thanks Duncan.

      What is also apt (in the futures sense) is philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s “Fox and the hedgehog”. The hedgehog knows one big thing, while the fox knows many things (or draws on a variety of experiences). Converting to a NZ setting, our “hedgehog” metaphor may be the Kakapo (specialised), while our “fox” is the Tui (adaptable).