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The (Near) Future of Work & Learning for Nonprofits and Individuals

We are at a dramatic inflection point in human history. We are better connected and have better productivity tools than ever.

October 23, 2018

By Gary A. Bolles (Chair of Future of Work, Singularity University) & Leila Toplic (No Lost Generation Tech Task Force Lead, NetHope)

This blog post is a preview of some of the topics we’ll be discussing at NetHope Global Summit in Dublin.

The Change

We are at a dramatic inflection point in human history. We are better connected and have better productivity tools than ever. At the same time, we’re faced with an accelerating pace of change in how we live, work, and learn, fueled by exponential technologies like intelligent software and powerful hardware.

While technological advances from self-driving cars to automated medical diagnostics can improve the lives of many, they also promise to dramatically impact the world of work, affecting the livelihoods of people around the world whose skills may become obsolete as employers increasingly embrace the benefits of automation. For example, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), 35 percent of skills considered important in today’s workforce will become less needed in just the next four years. That is not to say that automation is replacing human work completely, rather it’s augmenting work, leading to fewer humans needed for some tasks.

Some analysts predict massive net job losses. A well-known McKinsey study predicts that up to 800 million people will be made jobless by automation by 2030, including a third of the workforces in the U.S. and Germany. WEF is more hopeful: If decision-makers in organizations and governments commit to helping workers develop new knowledge and skills, their recent report maintains a net gain of work opportunities of 58 million. But workers who lose their jobs—even those with recent college degrees— are increasingly unprepared to do tomorrow’s work. The result: conditions where high unemployment, unfilled jobs, and low pay can all occur at the same time.

All of these predictions attempt to look down a road heavily shrouded in fog. Our collective ability to predict the future, and to understand the actual impact of the shift to a more-digital work economy, is limited. But we do know one thing: Driven by the combination of automation and globalization, the pace of change is accelerating, and this will continue to be disruptive to many lives, organizations, industries, and economies, transforming work as we know it today while creating a range of new opportunities tomorrow.

The options are clear. Organizations and individuals can sit on the sidelines complacently working and learning the same old way, letting others design the future. Or we can each take control and proactively transform how we work and learn and design the future we all want.

For the nonprofit world, much is at stake.

Why We Must Change

Not everything about the future is uncertain. It is guaranteed that the major global challenges of today—from the refugee crisis and disease outbreaks to natural disasters and poverty—will still be with us for the foreseeable future. Exponential changes are challenging enough in stable societies and economies, but the magnitude and diversity of large-scale problems are constantly evolving, straining the global humanitarian system to the breaking point. 

Many nonprofits themselves are not up to the twin tasks of rapidly navigating the seismic shift in the global work economy, while tackling growing societal and environmental problems. According to NetHope’s Center for Digital Nonprofit study, “Nonprofits play a $40 billion role in the annual delivery of international aid, and are increasingly strained by the widening gap between available resources and growing needs. The effective integration of an NGO’s people, process, and technology investments into digital business models can enhance the impact of each budget dollar and thereby help close that gap: every 5 percent increase in the effectiveness of the NGO sector translates into $2 billion of enhanced annual global impact.”

For-profit companies have recognized that rapid social and economic changes require new ways of working and learning. Like for-profit companies, nonprofits must replace rigid 20th century structures and processes and risk-averse cultures with agile networks of entrepreneurial, lifelong learners, so they can rapidly anticipate, respond to, and solve the challenges of tomorrow. We sometimes call this mentality the “exponential organization.” By leveraging technology, and the adaptive mindset that high-growth companies use to continually solve new challenges, NGOs have the opportunity to more rapidly and effectively catalyze change.

What Needs to Change

We’ll be discussing all these elements in more detail at the NetHope Global Summit in Dublin. But for now, here are a few “firestarter” ideas:

Starting with learning, we need to think and act differently, both internally and externally in the programs we implement—and, ask three critical questions:

  1. Who is accountable for making sure that all individuals—including nonprofit workers and their beneficiaries—can thrive in the future? In addition to educational institutions, nonprofit organizations need to transform into enablers of lifelong learning opportunities for all, encouraging curiosity and experimentation as part of learning.
  2. What skills do we need to learn? For both nonprofit workers and beneficiaries, the four most critical “transferable skills” are “PACE”: becoming Problem-solvers who are Adaptive, Creative, and Entrepreneurial in their thinking. Also, all must learn how to communicate and collaborate effectively with anyone (including machines) in a distributed and diverse world of work. We will talk about some of the other skills at the Summit.
  3. How should we learn? Learning needs to transform from one-size-fits-all, one-time investment, disconnected from real world problems to lifelong, just-in-time, personalized learning that enables each individual to continually learn new skills anywhere, anytime and get recognized for it. To keep up with the pace of change, we need to adopt a growth mindset because the only way to continually adapt is to believe that each of us has the capacity to grow and change.

Committing to Change

None of this is easy. But if we get started today and collectively face our exponentially changing world with effective approaches, we can have transformative impact on the challenges we all face and opportunities that change brings.

We look forward to a stimulating dialog in Dublin and to collaborating on developing the actionable strategies to which we can all commit.


Join us in Dublin for the following sessions:

Become an Exponential Organization, Solve the World's Challenges Faster

11:00 AM - 11:30 AM, Wed, Nov 7, 2018

Future of Work and Learning: Roles of Organizations and Individuals

11:30 AM - 12:00 PM, Wed, Nov 7, 2018

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