Luddite Foresight: Metaskills for Meeting Change

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I have a toilet handle I can’t figure out how to fix. It’s loose, I fully expect it to fall apart at some embarrassing moment (when, say, the royal family is visiting), and a plumber could probably pull out a whatsis wrench and have it in working order within 60 seconds.

But not me.

I am not “handy” as many in my family will not only attest, but sometimes jokingly-seriously complain about. I fully accept the truth here.

Part of this comes from a general disinterest in fixing toilet handles but part comes from growing up in a family where more emphasis was placed on reading books than working on, say, cars. It’s an interesting notion to think back upon. My grandfather was both a farmer (he knew how to wield a grease gun) and an educator (he knew how to wield a textbook). My dad spent a lot of time on the farm, but I get the feeling he had his fill of putting up hay in younger years. I spent evenings and holidays reading instead of building or fixing stuff.

(Lest my siblings disagree with this interpretation, I only point out that I don’t hear about any of them plying hammers and screwdrivers in their spare time either, but I do believe they have plenty of book-reading projects in progress.)

All of which is to say that I never worried too much about changing technology – the latest engine, the newest electric saw, the zippiest 21-uses wrench – until I had to deal with computers and the internet and software and all of that mystery.

Instead, I moved toward what might be described as a modern-day “erudite Luddite”. (“Erudite” far overstates my reading/thinking skills, but it rhymes…). I don’t disapprove of technology that makes work easier or more meaningful, but I do resist “the shallows” where the internet can take us. (See the presentation Davin and I made laying out the case for Exploring Profound Learning).

It turns out that “Luddites”, whom we refer to as recalcitrant, technology resisters, were really craftspeople who had spent their lives learning to do something expertly. “Most were trained artisans who had spent years learning their craft, and they feared that unskilled machine operators were robbing them of their livelihood” (Andrews, Who Were The Luddites?). They weren’t against technology, per se, but saw the danger of it replacing their skillful work.

“The original Luddites were British weavers and textile workers who objected to the increased use of mechanized looms and knitting frames.”

~Evan Andrews, Who were the Luddites?

We see that today, don’t we? In my local grocery store self-serve checkout stations have replaced the nice cashiers I love to chat it up with as I insert my chipped card into the money-taker.  That makes me sad, and I always hope these folks are finding other meaningful work in the store.

It also reminds me that: 1) We now live in a global market place for talent, and that savvy workers will prepare themselves for the technology upgrades that are inevitable; 2) An impersonal kiosk can never replace a friendly, helpful person; and 3) Deep knowledge can be like a metaskill, which can anchor and serve us in the turbulence of constant change.

David Clemons and I wrote an entire chapter about metaskills in our book Managing The Mobile Workplace. In an article we wrote about metaskills, Managing Mobility, we said: 

We use the term metaskills not in a scholarly or a technical way but simply to describe expertise or abilities that transcend a given situation and which can be applied to new and evolving circumstances. They are comprised of other skills that might change over time as well. They are the abilities mobile managers will need that go beyond changes in technology and they will be valuable in a mobile workplace no matter whether people are using cans tied to strings, smart phones, or teleportation.

We wrote MMWF to be “evergreen”, meaning that we wanted to share concepts that we thought would stand the test of time and go beyond rapidly changing technology. There we described metaskills such as becoming a learning organization, renewal, collaboration, and assessment. We don’t pretend to know all the metaskills managers of mobile workforces will need, but we want to ask you to consider which of those you’ll need over time

As the modern-day loom arrives to take away the value of skills we have acquired, what metaskills can we count on as we adapt to the new conditions? Perhaps coal workers and cashiers and taxi-and-bus-and-stretch-limo-and-tractor drivers and fighter pilots will find themselves out of work as technology advances, but there will always be a need for people with meta-skills. Those who can adapt to changing conditions.  What will be the meta-skills in your profession? How can we prepare for changing times in order to have long and productive and satisfying careers?

Even if we can’t change a tire.

———————————-

“Getting past the myth and seeing their protest more clearly is a reminder that it’s possible to live well with technology—but only if we continually question the ways it shapes our lives. It’s about small things, like now and then cutting the cord, shutting down the smartphone and going out for a walk. But it needs to be about big things, too, like standing up against technologies that put money or convenience above other human values.”

~Richard Coniff, What The Luddites Really Fought Against

 

References:

Evan Andrews, Who Were The Luddites? History, June 26, 2019

Clemons, D., & Kroth, M. S. (2011). Managing the mobile workforce: leading, building, and sustaining virtual teams. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Clemons, D., & Kroth, M. S. (2013). Managing Mobility. HRM 13.4 The Leadership Special.  Mar 31, 2013.  

Richard Conniff, What The Luddites Really Fought Against, Smithsonian Magazine, March, 2011

Liz Ryan, Five Metaskills You’ll Need To Succeed in 2020, Forbes, March 10, 2016.

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