"Here, you look like you need this.”
I looked up from my work station and came eye to eye with a steaming cup of hot coffee, attached to a hand.
This hand did in fact belong to a person: my work neighbour whom I had not spoken to for days. Although we worked in the same division, our assignments took us into different meetings in different buildings, sometimes even different countries for stretches at a time.
I gratefully received her offering of sustenance before turning back to my computer.
In 2016, I was the Secretariat that staffed the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), a sprawling national effort co-chaired by Minister of Finance Heng Swee Keat, and Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran. Together with several other Ministers, as well as senior leaders from the public and private sector, we studied the pressing economic challenges today that would affect Singapore tomorrow, in order to present policy responses to help our industries, people and government to prepare for the future. Over 16 months, the Committee consulted over 9,000 stakeholders, including trade associations and chambers (TACs), public agencies, unions, companies, executives, workers, academics, educators, and students.
In Singapore, economic master-planning of this scale takes place every five years or so, often on the back of a significant event—such as SARS, or the Global Financial Crisis. The “crisis” confronting the CFE, however, was less to do with a national disaster than disruption on a global scale. New technologies were poised to fundamentally change traditional means of operating. Be it e-commerce and government services provided over the Internet, or robotics and 3D printing disrupting traditional manufacturing supply chains, or emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence: it was timely for both the private sector and government to think hard about our responses to the resultant challenges and opportunities, particularly with respect to jobs in the future.
The future of work is not some science fiction dystopia where machines take over man.
The potential impact of technology has been much discussed by experts elsewhere. Suffice to say, the future of work is not some science fiction dystopia where machines take over man and the human race is displaced or destroyed. Technology will remain very much a tool to enable the design and production of better goods and services that will benefit people: a supplement to, rather than a supplanting of. But how might governments and policymakers, when thinking about the future of work, respond to help people harness more quickly and broadly the benefits of technology and globalisation? I will share some perspectives arising from my experience as the CFE Secretariat.
The Changing Nature of Work: Tasks, Not Titles
The future of work will no longer be defined by organisational structures. Instead, work will increasingly be about tasks, and how we organise ourselves around performing those tasks together. TaskRabbit and Uber are immediate examples of how work can be reclassified to be about harnessing available resources to solve a particular task, rather than relying on an organised group of people identified as “plumbers” or “taxi drivers” in their job description. Even the work of the CFE Secretariat—a loose team of diverse individuals working in disparate locations but staying constantly connected through phones and computers—would not have been possible without modern technology.
When thinking about the future of work more broadly in the economy, we should more readily acknowledge that work will be less about people showing up to the same location, the same desk, every single day, for 20 years of their lives. Instead, the work of the future will look more like problem solving around a web of discrete tasks—some more complex than others—that will require a dynamic set of people who bring with them a diversity of skills that are required to solve that problem at hand. From an individual’s perspective, it is said that one could go through some six-and-a-half different jobs or “large tasks”, within the duration of his or her career.
How should organisations respond then? Successful organisations of the future will be the ones that allow people, internal and external, to organise themselves to solve tasks. But beyond nimbleness, organisational structures will also need to be resilient enough to be drawn and redrawn around such self-forming teams, without losing the fundamental ability to achieve the organisation’s mission or retain its culture.
The Changing Context that Is Our Region
Alongside the disaggregation of organisations comes the disaggregation of demand. In a globalised world, instead of large corporates being the drivers of knowledge and needs, empowered consumers, whose voices are amplified by Internet platforms and social media, will have an increasingly larger role in articulating what their specific demands are, and tasking organisations to design customised solutions to meet them.
If Singaporeans are serious about staying globally competitive, they will have to heighten their sense of other cultures and other structures.
This power shift asks us to draw closer to the end-user to more deeply understand their needs. People often draw the wrong conclusion that just because globalisation and the Internet allow us to serve our customers from a distance, that it should be the main basis for interaction. Far from it: more than ever, a direct and detailed understanding of the markets and the people that we serve, will be the hallmark of a successful value proposition.
Worryingly, we often heard during CFE consultations that Singaporeans have resisted working overseas, particularly in the Asian region, because of its associated discomforts relative to home. Without direct international experience, Singaporeans naturally lost out when competing for the top positions in their organisations. This is particularly true if the end-markets are in ASEAN, which does not operate as a single unified market, and whose 600 million people express more cultural diversity and nuance than can ever be appreciated from afar.
If Singaporeans are serious about staying globally competitive, they will have to venture abroad to heighten their sense of other cultures and other structures. Governments and corporations can play a role in systematically increasing their people’s overseas exposure early on, particularly to the biggest and emerging markets in the region. At the same time, it is also about accommodating—in our aspirations towards becoming a global city—a greater variety of cultural differences within Singapore, as more people with different backgrounds and experiences choose to study and work with us.
More broadly, policymakers should think beyond Singapore as an agglomeration of the best companies and talent, to a notion of Singapore as a hub that is the most connected outwards, with the best sense-making abilities in the rapidly evolving region that is Southeast Asia. Our key enduring advantage will be about being the most credible interlocutor in this region, and our institutional experiences and expertise must grow to reflect this accordingly.
The Changing Models of Learning
If the nature of work evolves to become more task-based and needs-focused, then education and training programmes will similarly need to be about increasing the workforce’s range of skills and competencies to access and meet the needs of the future. A dynamic and globalised world means that learning is no longer about attaining educational qualifications by the early twenties, but about adding on new skills all the time, and just in time.
In thinking about the changing models of learning, we can think across two dimensions: time and types of recognisable qualifications. The time dimension is about dismissing the notion that education and training only happen in the first 20 to 25 years of one’s life. Instead, they must happen throughout a person’s career lifespan, perhaps in 5- to 10-year cycles, in tandem with innovation cycles and the average time it takes to build up expertise, all the way to retirement. In a sense, training is both a marathon and a sprint.
In terms of types, the economy must increasingly be able to attach a value to the acquisition of skills that are relevant in the workplace, but which may not be captured in paper qualifications. The creative industry, which privileges the quality of the portfolio over the individual’s academic attainment, is perhaps a good example of this. The Singapore Public Service has also made positive steps in this direction, in allowing diploma-holders to access civil service schemes that hitherto were only accessible to degree-holders, if they prove through their work performance that they have the potential and ability to fulfil the job’s requirements.
Training must happen throughout a person’s career, in tandem with innovation cycles and the average time it takes to build up expertise. Training is both a marathon and a sprint.
If learning happens across a longer period of time, and mastery can take many forms, we must then grow accustomed to the reality that people will have, or aspire to have, multiple careers throughout their lives. Anecdotally, there already seems to be greater acceptance of young people switching out of their desk-bound jobs to hone more technical or operational skillsets that will bring value to the economy in a different way: lawyers becoming restauranteurs, or teachers becoming freelancing coders, for instance. Singapore still has some distance to go in honouring vocational and technical craftsmen, the way some other societies such as Germany do.
The family may fret about unstable incomes, while the policymaker worries about the potential skills mismatch between the workforce and the economy, or how our social safety nets would hold up if the general trends continue. While these are all valid concerns, our primary focus should be on designing robust systems that support and recognise the lifelong learning of micro skills that are needed within the economy. And because of the close nexus of skills acquisition to the changing needs of the industry, companies must be an integral part of this intervention, in defining what “good” looks like, and in coming alongside to design and provide appropriate and timely training, for such systems to be effective.
It must be emphasised, however, that value can be objective and quantifiable. In supporting skills acquisition, it should not be anything goes, nor training solely for training’s sake: I am reminded of anecdotes that the most popular training course that Singaporeans sign up for with their SkillsFuture credits, is baking.
Like it or not, the future economy belongs to those who are mobile and adaptable, who exhibit empathy and cultural sensitivity, and who can learn throughout their lives. To the extent that we can intentionally create a system to support these shifts, we should. But we must also be mindful that not everyone will be able to acquire and demonstrate these attributes to the fullest extent, and our system design must cater to them also, not leave them behind.
We must also be careful to not get so caught up with change that we forget what is evergreen. In the end, regardless of changing contexts, work is ultimately about creating meaning for ourselves and others. Meaningfulness does not always have to be about having the skills to teach robots to dance, or writing out grand strategies for the future.
More often than not, it’s simply about looking around you, reaching out, and saying, “Here, you look like you need this.” A future of work devoid of moments like these, is but work without a future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrea Phua is Deputy Director at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, where, in addition to her role as the Secretariat to the Committee on the Future Economy, she has served in various capacities to support the internationalisation of Singapore companies, manage Singapore’s economic relationship with North America, and most recently, negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. Prior to this, she taught English Literature and worked on education policy at the Ministry of Education.