Scott Lattham

Scott Latham, Ph.D., Business Policy and Strategy, has worked and consulted in the high tech arena for over two decades. His research focuses on organizational decline, economic and industry turbulence, and innovation; it has been disseminated in the top outlets in the field, including the Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, Entrepreneur Magazine, Mass High Tech, the Boston Globe, and The Week. He actively consults with organizations on business models, growth, and strategic positioning. In addition he sits on the board of M2D2- the Massachusetts Medical Device to Market incubator, where he has advised close to 100 small medical device startups.


January 21, 2020

Q + A With Scott Latham: Revolutionizing Learning and Development for the Age of Automation

Revolutionizing Learning and Development for the Age of Automation

The future of work is top-of-mind for pretty much – everyone. As companies, universities and employees currently prepare for the skills needed for the future, we wanted to introduce new data from our 2020 CGS Emerging Workplace Learning Trends Survey and use the findings as conversation starters with a few of the brightest minds and thought leaders on this topic. We hope you enjoy Dr. Latham’s unique advice on how to navigate in the age of so much change in this Q&A.

Scott Latham is a professor, strategy consultant and author with a Ph.D. in Business Policy and Strategy. He has more than two decades of experience working and consulting for the technology industry. His academic research focuses on organizational decline, economic and industry turbulence and innovation. Dr. Latham’s writings have been featured in top outlets in the field, including the Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, Entrepreneur Magazine, Mass High Tech, Boston Globe and The Week. He holds a position on the boards of the Boston Federal Reserve Bank’s Reimagining Work advisory group, M2D2, the Massachusetts Medical Device to Market incubator and the Ethos Science Innovation and Commercialization Council.

What is your take on the survey results? How are these results in alignment with or differ from your research work?

The first thing that I took from the survey results is that it is in line with what my co-authors and I have been researching. I think that the level of hysteria that the business press, the economists and the politicians are fermenting is not really reflective of how people in the workforce see it. For instance, look at the answers related to AI (artificial intelligence). Of the 1,000 people who completed the survey, a lot of them (60.8%) felt that AI will positively affect their jobs. I think that will be the case across all the job sectors with the exception of retail and, surprisingly, medical. The respondents know what's coming and they understand that they will have to get some new skills, but they will adapt, which was really eye-opening for me. And I think people need to know that there is still time to adapt.

That’s very interesting. Most articles really seem to focus on the negativity, but our research seems to be similar to your findings. For instance, in one of our recent surveys specific to AI and customer service, we expected a lot more “doom and gloom” responses, but that just wasn’t the case. Of course, there were some responses that were concerned with a “Terminator” like AI future. (laughs)

Exactly. But there was another point of interest that was really humbling in the data. The data shows that people are rapidly losing faith in higher education and that’s a real concern. I'm a first-generation college kid. I am passionate about public education. But if you look at the survey data, to a large degree, people (40% of workers aged 25-44) are keen on going on their own to reskill and upskill themselves or are going to rely on their company to develop that skill. And I think only about 11% said that they were going to look at higher education as the primary vehicle for them to adapt. We have no one else to blame but ourselves. The credentialing models that are relied on in higher education are outdated. They are going to be really outdated as we see the dramatic disruption. If you look at the estimates, Oxford says that half of the jobs are going to be irrelevant or displaced, while PwC research estimates a third of jobs are at risk. IBM recently released a benchmark study that estimates 120 million people will need retraining in AI and smart automation. And what role does higher education play in all of this? What is confirmatory and of utmost concern to me as a professor, who teaches innovation and disruption, is whether or not higher education is going to be able to get that number past 11%.

Do you see anything interesting or different happening at universities, or pilot programs that might be starting up? Is anyone attempting something different?

I do. And given that I teach innovation at a business school, as part of our MBA program, I can tell you that the Boston area and certainly New York City are testing some new things that cross the lines between business and education. Boston University has announced a new competency-based MBA program. Similarly, MIT has new certificates in AI and strategic decision-making to help learners develop an understanding of smart automation. So, we are seeing institutions offer programs that I think are going to be more applicable to what’s happening in the workplace.

You know, the thing is, we all speak to our personal experience. As a professor in his late 40ss, I look back at what was relevant to me in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when I was an undergrad at UMass Amherst. My favorite course was called “Brave New World World.” It was about dystopian futures – books such as “Animal Farm” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” My other favorite courses were on Greek history, the history of Islam, the history of World War II and the Civil War. However, the valuable skills and experiences from college that surfaced in the survey – the ones that are really utilized – are more of the technical courses; the skill-based courses. Today, we need the leadership, we need the critical thinking, but the technical proficiencies have taken top priority. So, I think you will see more colleges and universities dedicate more real estate in their curriculums to working with AI and understanding big data. The way jobs are changing, every job is going to be touched by some level of science and technical skills. There is no escaping that.

That’s fascinating. What do you think this means for the future?

I think there are three things that are going to happen: There are going to be displaced people and those people are going to need reskilling very quickly. If you think about our education system, it is really front-loaded. We do a great job at getting the 18- to 22-year-olds out of the gate. But what happens when they are 32, 42, 52 or 62? When displacement happens, it is sudden, and people need to be upskilled quickly. The typical university doesn't offer those types of programs. They don't offer industry-focused certificates. For instance, if someone is in high tech, is there a certificate program on Python coding with artificial intelligence or big data? Not yet. Harvard has done a tremendous amount of research on the career needs of a 52-year-old versus a 22-year-old. The knowledge difference by age is somewhat obvious, but it really isn't as obvious as it is when you take into account different industries. The programs that are out there right now cater to a displaced worker but not necessarily to those who need to upskill. The second expectation is the emergence of the transformed worker. And, you and I will see transformed workers in our own lifetimes. One of the examples I use for this is a radiologist. Tomorrow’s radiologists will have to learn how to interface with artificial intelligence. Once they do, their jobs are, in effect, transformed.

A lot of the hysteria has been around retail associates – blue collar or lower-skill jobs – being displaced. But what caught my attention, and provides another example of transformed workers, was in a report by the BBC about surgeons and how they are using remote smart automation to do surgeries. Not only are they able to do them remotely, but the surgeries have a higher level of positive outcomes. I think that is fascinating and scary, all at once. Because, at some point, you or I may lay down on the table to get an appendix removed or to have a bone mended and it is going to be a robot and a human operating on us. So, we are going to see that transformed nature of skill development as well.

Then there is the third type of worker. When you see the statistics, and there is not a lot of research out there just yet, anywhere between 40 to 60 percent of the jobs 10 years from now are going to be jobs that haven't even been envisioned yet. One is an AI ethicist – it's a person who works and looks at how AI should behave in an ethical manner to prevent bias, to ensure privacy, to make sure that it's secure. How do we skill for those jobs? I think reskilling has to address those three distinct populations: The displaced worker who is put out of work mid-career; the transformed worker who still has a role but needs to learn how to interface with AI and smart automation; and the new worker of the future.

Again, the larger wrapper I would put around that is that the changes are not just going to touch blue-collar folks. A local financial services firm announced 1,500 layoffs earlier this year because AI could do those jobs better. Imagine if you went to a college to get a Master’s degree in Science or Finance and spent $80,000 to get it and then got laid off because a robot is going to do your job. It's crazy. So, I think that the takeaway here for anyone responsible for improving employee performance, you must take into account these three types of buckets.

Learning new skills is going to be industry-specific, role-specific and function-specific. So, I think, there is a level of that specificity within an organization. Where we are going to see AI infiltrate the organization with the three worker types first, is in customer service, human resources and marketing.

In our survey, the top challenge that respondents said would impact their career choices if they had to do it all over again would be the cost of college. Market disruption and climate change are also there as considerations, but at a much smaller percentage. What are your thoughts on this finding?

The current operating model of higher education is broken. It is broken because its credentialing mechanisms – the Bachelor’s and Master’s programs are just not well-suited for the future of work. Take the example of a young, 18-year-old woman who takes up a computer science major this year. At the end of four or five years, her hope is to go out and become an early-stage programmer. That takes us to about 2024. If you look at most of the research with regards to what AI will be able to do by 2025, it predicts that AI will be able to write full-blown programs. So, this poor individual goes and gets a computer science degree that takes five years and when she gets to the job market, an AI bot is doing her job. So higher education is just too slow to address the needs of the future of work. That needs to change.

I think we will see the emergence of modular competency-based degrees, where you get badges or micro credentials in program development. And then, you get a badge in embedded system design and then in budgeting. Those badges add up, depending on the institution, to a competency degree in project management. Then you could leave the institution, use that competency, earn a living, and then come back. And as your career needs demand, maybe then get a competency in team leadership, or managing diversity. The whole notion of getting a 120-credit Bachelor’s degree for four years is just becoming very, very outdated. And, given the cost and student debt, the value of that college degree is really starting to fall out of favor. This isn’t something a lot of people are saying; it’s just a matter of whether higher education will change.

This is an outside-of-the-survey question, but for the younger kids entering college now, do you think there is anything they need to start doing differently? Or anything they can take on themselves? Or, is it that they have to stay in the system right now until there is something better?

That's a great question. There are some models out there that are emerging. One that I would advise you to look at is the Western Governors University. It’s a public institution that was founded across six states – Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon. Basically, it’s a new online college driven by experiential learning. You get a mentor, a counselor and an industry guide. And, they only focus on a handful of very marketable disciplines – business, nursing, IT – it is a very different educational model.

When it comes to what young people have to be thinking about, I think they have to recognize that just because their parents and grandparents went to college in a certain way, it doesn't mean they too have to do it the same way. I see a lot of my students taking gap years after their high school graduation and then going out and working. I have an increasing number of students coming into my programs who have largely trade and vocational backgrounds. And they're looking to get a kind of a hybrid degree and some basic business skills so that they can be a plumber or an electrician.

There need to be more flexible degree options, given what's going on with the economy. We owe it to these kids, we really do. It is frankly disgusting the way that student debt is piling up. And, it's because of a monolithic Bachelor’s degree that’s not market-driven, and doesn't get these students’ hands dirty with experiential learning. It is still driven by the classroom. And, that model was perhaps well-suited for the 20th century and the 19th century, but it is not well-suited to the 21st century. I think people are beginning to realize that.

There’s another school out there called the Lambda School and they do two things that are really innovative. One is that the school is driven to help people program. Six months, in and out, and you’re done. There’s a go-program for Google, a go-program-for IBM, a go-program for CGS, and what have you. The other thing they do is income-sharing agreements, where you don’t pay tuition; instead you pay a percentage of your earnings after, for a set period of time. Now, some people are criticizing that. They call it being an indentured servant, but these students don’t leave with that. So, it is at least some innovative thinking around alternative means of skill development and higher education. And I think that innovation is critical. You got to kiss a lot of frogs and throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.

A few companies have started to announce that they are no longer looking at a degree as a qualification or a requirement for certain positions. Do you think that more companies will start embracing that?

I do. We are starting to see larger companies follow that practice. The most notable example that everyone points to is IBM. They are talking about new collar jobs, and they will tell you that they are not even concerned about whether the candidate has a Bachelor’s degree. Instead, they just want to know if they can code, if they can pull off the product marketing plan, if they can write a white paper, if they can review a resume. For IBM, those skills are inherent to why they are hiring these individuals. By doing that, they're making a broader claim that they stand by this person as they evolve. As long as they are with IBM, they will help them develop and give them a skill that will help IBM and hopefully make them more marketable. Having a Bachelor’s degree may or may not be central to that. This will continue to happen. Amazon and Google are also gradually following suit. I think, a lot of knowledge-driven companies are more focused on the candidates’ skills and competencies instead of whether they have Bachelor’s degrees or not.

Is this an applicable practice for engineering or medical fields where you have to have a certain amount of knowledge for safety?

Yes, I do think there's a liability issue. There's definitely some accreditation required if you’re an engineer who is involved in building a bridge. But that doesn't mean that the accreditation can't be driven by the competency versus degree. As for the medical field, I think it will be a while before a degree like an MD goes out of favor. But yes, I think you're absolutely right about some of these fields.

Job titles and defined roles may be changing. Do you see that happening now? And how?

I do see that happening. In all my research over the past few weeks, I found this whole notion that specialization is dead. For people in the workforce and the future of work, flexibility is critical. There is this notion of the Holacracy (a concrete framework for encoding autonomy, agility and purpose-alignment into your organization's DNA). For example, Zappos, the shoe company founded by Tony Hsieh, like many others is struggling with the overall paradigm shift. But they don't have titles, they don't have departments, they don't have any kind of formal team; they basically have work. There's a virtual board of tasks like “we need to design a new shoe” or “we need to enter a new market.” There is broad work that needs to be done. They then post the job with the skills and the time commitment needed to get the job done. So, people review it, show up and end up bidding for a role. Their work and career evolve as they move from one project to another. This practice is called the Holacracy. It speaks directly to one-third of individuals in your survey basically saying that they are spanning multiple duties and they don't need job titles. They just show up and work. That is the future of work as far as boots on the ground are concerned. It is fascinating. Like any change, Holacracy too will cause some initial pain. Some people do well in these types of structures, other people want to sit in their cube and do their job and not be bothered. I think those jobs are going to get fewer and farther between over the next decade or so.

When thinking about working that way, how should people determine or anticipate what skills they might need and where they should invest their training and skilling for the future?

First and foremost, people have to feel comfortable working in a virtual, almost gig-driven set up. The best example are my own students. They show up at work, they don't have offices, they don't have cube assignments. It's an open-work environment. I think that the most important thing is that people have to be trained mentally to work like that. It comes easier for Millennials and Gen Z than for someone like me. There has to be that mental flexibility. The second thing is that people need to “learn how to learn.” This is essential to modular credentialing. If you get someone who just invested $200,000 to be a civil engineer, they're going to want to be a civil engineer. But if you have someone who takes some courses in civil engineering and accounting, she will perhaps grow into a person with an appreciation for different roles and different jobs. I think when you reskill those people, you can't specialize them. The era of specialization is over. Today’s companies want Jacks and Jills of all trades. They want people to have an appreciation for the larger picture with the organization.

The final question. We asked employees for one aspect of their career path that they wished they had prioritized more? Any reactions to the answers?

This one's tricky. First of all, the data has a wide variance across demographics. But I can tell you what the research shows. Imagine you have an X and Y axis, with the X axis denoting age and the Y axis denoting purpose. At an early age, you will see a high level of purpose for the 22-, 23-, 24-year-olds coming fresh out of college. They want to be part of something, and they act accordingly. You see a higher number of individuals at that age going into non-profits, going into government, going into NGOs. What happens then is life – buying a house, buying a car, having children, going back for a Master’s degree. It's not that they lose their sense of purpose, but they just gain a sense of financial obligation. Having purpose as a high priority ultimately tapers off. However, the research shows that a lot of Millennials and Gen Z have a level of resentment that they don't have the flexibility to follow through on this because of college debt. And, at the end of an individual’s working career, you see a spike in priority again for purpose and fulfillment. I see a lot of people in their 60s and 70s that come back to teach because they want to do something to give back to the students. They want to do something that they feel is making an impact. You see that across professions. So, the question of whether it is more important for the Millennial generation – it is. But it is also important to the Baby Boomers. Yet, as Gen X, my generation is probably somewhere in the middle. That sense of being able to offer purpose and find fulfillment from my work is important but is probably not the primary driver. So yes, I think it's interesting but it’s too early to draw any conclusions.


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Scott Lattham

Scott Latham, Ph.D., Business Policy and Strategy, has worked and consulted in the high tech arena for over two decades. His research focuses on organizational decline, economic and industry turbulence, and innovation; it has been disseminated in the top outlets in the field, including the Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, Entrepreneur Magazine, Mass High Tech, the Boston Globe, and The Week. He actively consults with organizations on business models, growth, and strategic positioning. In addition he sits on the board of M2D2- the Massachusetts Medical Device to Market incubator, where he has advised close to 100 small medical device startups.


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