Beyond Best Practices: Future Skills and Surviving Automation

We are all growing tired of hearing about how we are living and working in a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous). We get it. We’re here, we see. 
What we want to know is, what can we do about it? This is an important question. Yet it’s also a dangerous one, for the reasons we’ll explore here. What many of us think we need is a new set of best practices. We’re looking for a blueprint for success. We want a new roadmap to follow. 
We’ll make the case that in this VUCA world, the road to chaos is paved with our attachment to best practices. Management thought leader Dave Snowden describes the border between the “clear” context, which calls for best practices, and the “chaotic” context, as a catastrophic fold. In other words, there is a steep cliff we risk sliding over when we oversimplify and fail to effectively manage the complexity we are facing. At the bottom of the cliff is the burning wreckage of failed learning and development strategies.
From this perspective, as L&D leaders we have the potential to create massive value for our stakeholders by helping them build the capacity for managing complexity and constant change. Yet on the other hand, there is also the potential to play a fundamental role in the crash into chaotic ruin. In most organizations this sliding toward the cliff is happening right now. It’s the result of clinging to strategies that are well-suited for simpler times—strategies that center around the identification and dissemination of best practices. 
This is not to say there is no place for best practices. However, there are a couple of key factors to consider for those jumping to their defense. One is the rise of automation technology. We can think of a best practice as a code for performing a specific task in a specific way. It is making more and more sense, with each passing day, to automate such programmable tasks. We have, or will soon have, machines that can do it cheaper, faster, and more effectively. 
Second, the shelf life of best practices is shrinking by the day as the context of our work is changing faster than ever. It’s becoming unrealistically expensive to keep up with training and retraining humans with clear best practices. We get caught in a never-ending cycle of waste, two steps behind today and three tomorrow. We burn up time and resources we don’t have. 
Even for situations where there are relatively stable best practices today, we are setting ourselves up for serious future challenges by relying on them like we do. We are failing to prepare our people with the capabilities they will need in the near future, when the context changes or that job has been automated—when there’s nothing left for humans who think and behave like second-class robots to do. 
As Einstein is often quoted as saying, “we can’t solve our problems from the same level of thinking we used to create them.” We can see this play out as we struggle to figure out best practices for “future skills.” Something doesn’t quite line up. One insight is that many of these skills, which are more human, require something more that mindlessly downloading and implementing best practices. They require something that we can’t easily program into a computer: consciousness.
What does it mean to develop more conscious practices? How can we support such a practice from within our L&D roles? What new roles can we grow into? What does the necessary shift in our level of thinking look like? 
The future will require that as human beings we set ourselves apart from the machines. This calls for us to dig in deeper and develop our uniquely human abilities. The challenge is, as we’ll continue to explore, the dominant L&D paradigm is still very much rooted in mechanical thinking. We can’t develop the type of conscious practices needed now and into the future from the mechanical paradigm that still dominates much of our thinking about work and learning.

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Tom Palmer