What if we defined work as problem-solving?
They say work is disappearing or at least massively changing because of technological advancement. Many organizations and individuals are struggling to find ways to adapt to rapid digitization with visions of the near future alternate between the dystopia of mass unemployment and the utopia of pure leisure. Could there be a third alternative? Could redefining the concepts that surround work and intelligent human action create new possibilities for value creation and meaningful human life?
What is work, why does it exist? What if we stopped equating work with jobs, employer-employee-relationships or titles and instead defined it as problem-solving?
Work exists because there are people with problems that need to be solved, needs that require fulfilling and questions that beckon answers. Importantly, work exists because humans as a species are social. We wish to be relevant and important to other people, we come together to attain what we cannot alone. Therefore, work will exist for as long as there are people with problems and questions on this earth. This means that work is certainly not disappearing and in fact at its core perpetual.
Working, however, meaning the ways in which the questions at the core of work are answered, and the problems generating work solved, keeps constantly changing and ever will. Why? Because ongoing social and technological development keep redefining what is intelligent human action.
Intelligent human action is always contextual and ultimately socially determined. It is not only the collection of cognitive skills we are able to employ in a given situation. Rather, intelligent action is the combination of three things:
1. human cognition and skill,
2. the tools we have at our disposal, and
3. the social attribution of meaning and value.
Whenever there is development in any of these areas, the definition of intelligence becomes redefined. And because of human nature, development is constant.
Humans are a tool-building species. Tools exist to complement our abilities, to help us go beyond what is “naturally” possible. The extent of our intellect is defined by what we can attain through broadening our capabilities, using the tools we have created. Tools can be regarded as inseparable from human cognition as the two continue to define the possibilities of one another.
Humans are also inherently social. Actions gain their significance and value in the eyes of others. Ultimately, it’s other people that define your success. Therefore, whether an action is intelligent of not, and what the best balance between human cognition and tool use is, is ultimately defined by the social context within which the action takes place. This means that it’s not always right to use the most advanced tool, and conversely, sometimes that’s exactly the way to produce the most value to others. As a banal example, for some shop-goers the most meaningful and valuable experience is to interact with a human being at the cash register. Others just quickly want out with no human contact. Two different needs, requiring different combinations of human cognition and technology and a good grasp on individuals needs in the context.
Now if work organizations wish to be smart, they need to consider all three dimensions of intelligent action in their business. This means that organizations need to understand
1. how to support and develop human cognition,
2. what are the best available tools, and
3. the meaning and value experienced as a result of the work.
Instead of considering each of these areas separately, the most important question is how to comprehend and enable the complementarity of the three. Failure to do so will lead to intelligence-inhibiting structures at work. Or, bluntly, stupid working.
The task is of course not easy. With all the talk about robots and digitization, many work organizations are focusing only on keeping up with the advancement of tools, often at the expense of the individual. How aware are work organizations of the diverse contexts in which value is experiencedof their products and services? How present are they in these situations? In terms of human cognition, how good are work organizations at supporting individuals in the use and development of the most important work skills?
And what are these skills, anyway?
In essence, the most valuable human work requires skills that cannot be modeled in AI, skills where humans still surpass the machine. These include things like learning, creative thinking, flexibility and contextual thought, and most importantly, most persistently, the skills that permit fruitful interaction, like empathy. (Of course not always! For instance, a hand-made piece of furniture requires manual skill that could be automated, but is more valuable when it is not)
But for the sake of the argument at play here, it could be summarized that most important human work skills require higher-order cognition.It may be that algorithms can in a sense be creative and are able to learn some things as efficiently as humans. Heck, even some parts of interaction can be automated. For instance, the recent exciting advances in machine vision show how algorithms are able to discern emotion-related micro expressions, at near-human accuracy.
However, there is an important distinction between humans and machines: the way that humans understand emotions requires a conscious self. The way that human creativity and learning is valuable is through the conscious, experiencing self. And, at least until and if AI becomes conscious and we have a new species with which to interact, humans will be needed for connecting on the level of consciousness, for empathy that is experiencing and modeling other’s experiences as one’s own.
So in sum, if work organizations wish to avoid working stupidly, in addition to making sure the best tools are available, and making sure they understand how their work creates value to others, it is necessary to support humans at what humans do, and are, best. The tasks that require humanness are the non-routine and cognitively demanding, the ones that require creativity, flexibility and connection to other humans.
So the big question is, do our work structures enable or inhibit humanness? How are the most valuable human skills nurtured by the traditional structures guiding our work such as roles, competency systems, and recruitment methods? How well do individuals take care of and cultivate their most important work assets?
Luckily, there is a lot of scientific knowledge available on how to ensure that these abilities and actions flourish. All that is needed is the willingness to keep learning.
In summary, the rapid development of our digital tools opens up new possibilities for the evolution of intelligent action at an astounding pace. It requires alertness, curiosity and a flexible learning mindset from work organizations to keep up with the change. Amidst technological learning, the human aspect is however often overlooked and the capacities that organizations have for understanding human cognition are subpar, even though it is precisely through humanness that people create most value. What is needed is better understanding of the complementarity of the human, the machine and the social, of the basis of intelligent human action. In any time, in the middle of any technological development, a human-centered approach is the key to stability and abundance.
Cognitive neuroscientist exploring the neural mechanisms behind empathy and fruitful interaction, particularly in digital environments
This blog post was originally published on Work Futures