Blog by Dr. Arndt Pechstein

  • Dr. Arndt Pechstein

The Future of Work: From Digital Transformation to Cultural Transition

Responding to the tremendous speed by which our environment changes, organizations and societies strive for a digital transformation in order to be future-ready. While adapting to technological advances that accelerate along an exponential curve is without doubt essential for survival, it does not secure future-readiness. The pitfall of thinking about digital transformation is that it is way too often technology-centered and neglects central aspects of human behavior, potential, and values. This has also serious implications for the workplace of the 21st century.

The Legacy of the Industrial Revolution

The 21st century represents a tipping point in human evolution. Never before have we had opportunities so great. But never before have we been facing challenges so complex. The dilemma we are confronted with, however, is that we have been educated and conditioned with mental models, thinking patterns, processes and approaches born in the context of the enlightenment era and the industrial revolution. This led us to become extremely good at thinking analytically, breaking down the world into simple models and disciplines, and structuring our lives and organizations in linear, standardized and often segmented patterns seeing more boundaries than connections. In face of growing complexity and change, these mechanisms of control, prediction and rigidity increasingly fail to work. What we need is a change in mindset, a cultural revolution characterized by new paradigms, values, and approaches.


Humanization over Automation

While technology is certainly an enabler of human advancement, it will not solve all our problems. It will, however, radically change the spectrum of tasks humans will or will be able to do in the workplace. And exactly that change needs to be reflected in an adaptation of our behavior. Already today, most skills taught in our outdated school system are already automated or can be done better by machines: reading, calculating, reciting facts, acquiring data. What distinguishes humans from machines are deep human skills and competencies like creativity, critical and systems thinking, complex problem-solving as well as empathy, curiosity, self-reflection, and adaptability.


Thus, the more technology advances, the more we need to develop our human core. We need to humanize our workplaces. We need to strengthen those skills, that distinguish us from machines. This renaissance of human competencies not only secures our contribution in an increasingly automated world. It also establishes an entire new culture of human interaction based on trust, collaboration and respect. To accomplish that mental change, we need to unlearn old and relearn new thinking and behavioral patterns. And this process naturally takes time, commitment, and courage.


Experimentation over Prediction

The ability of leaders and employees to judge which approaches to choose under certain conditions becomes increasingly important. Methods, processes, tools and leadership styles are strongly dependent on the context within which the challenges live we are trying to tackle. In simple and defined contexts with linear cause-and-effect relationships where the outcome can be predicted and controlled (known knowns), standardized procedures and best practices work very well and lead to high efficiency. In complicated context environments this changes already. Not all parameters are evident (known unknowns) but with data-driven analyses, statistical approaches and expert support, challenges can be solved. Various solutions to a given problem are possible and lead to good practices. Increasingly, however, we are operating in uncertain, complex and unpredictable environments. All innovation, organizational development, people- and transition-related projects belong to this category. It is impossible to predict or control the outcomes as the relationships and interdependencies are no longer linear. Such contexts require empirical approaches, experiments based on iterative trial-and-error loops. Agile methods like Design Thinking, Lean Startup, Kanban and Scrum should be chosen here. A company culture that embraces organizational learning from fast mistakes and short feedback loops becomes essential. Repetition of the same does not guarantee success. Instead, emergent practices lead to effectiveness. Only once a solution is established and patterns are recognized it might be possible to transition partially to statistical or even defined approaches again.


Adaptive Leadership & Aligned Autonomy

Such empirical, experimentation-based approaches require new ways of team work and leadership. Experts alone and top down leadership styles will fail to respond to complex challenges. Instead, a collaborative work environment with cross-functional teams is required where leaders empower the employees to work in a self-organized fashion. That does not mean that there is no order or alignment. On the contrary: an agile organization has way better defined boundaries and rules than classical companies. Only within such boundaries and based on an aligned understanding of goals and focus, self-organized, autonomous work is possible. Interestingly, this also leads to higher motivation and performance. Instead of extrinsic motivators like bonuses, autonomy and self-direction lead to high-performing and motivated people that are more creative and productive due to increased satisfaction and sense of purpose.


Purpose over Profit

Purpose is another main motivator for employees. One in four global entrepreneurs aged under 35 is going into business motivated by purpose rather than just profit, according to research by an HSBC banking group survey. Personal values fundamentally shape both the vision they set for their ventures and their day-to-day management and business operations.


Culture over Process and Structure

In the end, it is the culture of an organization that determines its long-term success and survival. Trends and changes in user needs disrupt the daily routines constantly, products may change every few months or years, processes need to be adapted constantly and structures are emergent and dynamic. But only in a culture that allows collaboration, trust and openness, that rewards courage by embracing errors as learning opportunities, and that couples strong commitment with a clear vision, complexity and uncertainty can be tackled in a non-threatening and productive way.The future of work happens already today. Values, processes and structures are challenged. Boundaries are starting to be blurred. People, value creation, and purpose gain importance. This transition is about behavioral change, leveraging the human potential, and Hybrid Thinking. The 21st century is wonderfully nudging humanity into an era of modern humanism and a holistic mindset.


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This text is a collaboration project for the Merck Curiosity Initiative. Merck is known as Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in the United States & Canada. As a science and technology company, Merck fosters the idea of curiosity.

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About the author: Dr. Arndt Pechstein is a neuroscientist, agile coach, and management consultant. He is an energetic blend of a scientist, serial entrepreneur, and business coach. He holds a PhD in neuroscience, a diploma in biochemistry & biotechnology, and has specialist backgrounds in Agile & Design Thinking, Circular Economy, and Biomimicry. As founder and managing partner of the boutique consultancy phi360 and founder & director of the Biomimicry Germany Think Tank, he advises companies and organizations on agile transition, innovation, adaptive leadership, new work, bio-inspired disruptive innovation, and a new digital mindset. Arndt’s mission is shaping a just, sustainable, and desirable future.