Be More Human … Joe Coulombe’s inspiring Trader Joes, the rise of Superhumans in Denmark, and the Future of Work

May 15, 2022

Human skills will grow in value – complex problem solving and creativity, emotional intelligence and partnership building. Let machines do the simple, repetitive tasks.

In a world obsessed with the potential of technologies, it is human ingenuity that will drive real progress – both in unlocking the power of tech, and in being simply human. Here are 4 extracts from my new book “Business Recoded” exploring what it means to be human in today’s digital world.

Trader Joe’s

When it comes to grocery stores, there’s nothing quite like Trader Joe’s, which has amassed a cult following across America. Every time I walk into the store, my eyes light up with the colourful interiors, handwritten notices, quirky stories behind the foods, genuine interest of the staff, most dressed in outlandish styles, and their eagerness to help. I always emerge with a smile.

Joe Coulombe was the original Trader Joe, and having started out as Pronto Market convenience stores in 1958, created his own stores. Joe did things differently, and his stores reflected his love of Hawaiian beach culture with walls decked with cedar planks and staff dressed in cool Hawaiian shirts. Most importantly, he started putting innovative, hard-to-find, great-tasting foods in the “Trader Joe’s” name.

Value mattered to Joe. And the premium, exotic specialities he brought together were complimented by his low-priced own-label ranges which combined quality and quirkiness.

In 1979 Joe sold his brand to Theo Albrecht, better known for his low priced Aldi food stores in Europe. Aldi and Joe both believed in keeping things simple. No discounts, points cards, or members clubs. With a limited range the stores drive a better supply deal in return for bigger volumes, and can be more responsive to market trends.

Storytelling is everywhere at Trader Joe’s, from the hand-written signage and rustic displays, to the free coffee and sampling, the radio ads and chatty check-out dudes.

Whilst most competitors focus on automation and speed, this store is real and human, worth coming just to chill out. Even if you never get to visit a store, sign up to the Fearless Flyer online. With off-beat stories and cartoon humour, unusual recipes and showcased products, it’s an intriguing read.

Rise of the superhumans

The world often seems to be working against humanity. We build walls across the borders of America, fence people in who seek to migrate in search of a better life to Europe, apply deep surveillance policies in China, prefer to be an isolated island than a connected continent in UK, automate our factories and workplaces for speed and efficiency, prefer to date online rather than in reality, and to chat with social media friends rather than local communities.

At work, we are told that machines, from AI to robotics, will affect at least 30% of the current activities of at least 70% of job roles. It is the most repetitive tasks that are likely to be automated, robots on production lines, chatbots instead of call centres. Knowledge-based jobs from accountants to lawyers, air traffic controllers to investment bankers are likely to be some of the most disrupted.

When Elon Musk declared that “in the future robots will be able to do everything better than us, I mean all of us”, few experts disagreed.  However, more recently he has shared a more thoughtful view, saying that “automation is not the future, human augmentation is.”

Augmented humanity be a key driver of the future work, enhancing what we can do:

  • Assisted humanity: The interface between people and machines is evolving rapidly from keyboard to voice, to eyes and brains. Digital assistants like Alexa and Siri are already common on our phones and in our homes, and will increasingly navigate us through unattended store. Everyone at work will have their own assistant.
  • Intelligent humanity: As interfaces change, machines learn more about our thought processes and behaviours, using algorithms to predict what we need and to enhance our knowledge. They will help us to solve complex problems, consider more options and risks, and to make smarter decisions.
  • Connected humanity: Collaborative working becomes easier and continuous whether we are together or apart, distributed working at home or around the world is no impediment to working together, as knowledge flows seamlessly, and individual tasks are joined up intelligently.

Virtual reality tools like Google Glass augment how we work, for example engineers being able to read instruction guides through the lens of their eyewear whilst simultaneously working on machines, or surgeons being able to operate whilst also getting realtime diagnostic data on the patient’s organs and vital statistics

At the same time this augmentation can be physical too. In Odense, at the SDU’s Athletics Exploratorium, I came across engineers simulating the use of exoskeletons to help dockyard workers carry loads which would have previously required cranes, craftsmen to have tools connected to their bodies.

Technology won’t replace us, but it could make us “superhuman”.

The future of work

By 2025 the majority of workers will be freelance individuals working around the world, independent of distance or background. They will apply their human, emotional, and creative skills to solve ever-more complex problems. They have the hunger to keep learning throughout their lives, the agility to keep adapting and updating their skills, and the open-mindedness to see things differently.

Modern and high-tech working environments are enhanced by a community feeling with shared facilities and resources. Many of the workers are not even employed by the companies, instead they are happier to remain freelance “gig-workers” working on projects that require specialist inputs. New ideas, new skills, new innovations and new opportunities swirl around in the creative atmosphere, and new partnerships often emerge out of the fusion. This is the new world of work. No jobs for life. Few permanent roles. Fluid job descriptions. Multiple jobs at the same time. And companies working together.

Some of the jobs of the future will be highly technical, whilst others will be much more human. In exploring the jobs of the future, Ben Pring from Cognizant explores 4Es to consider the skills required:

  • Eternal skills: Some human skills have existed since our very beginning. No matter how brilliant our technologies become, these human skills, along with many others, will be of value through eternity.
  • Enduring skills: The ability to sell has always been important. Other such enduring abilities – being empathetic, trusting, helping, imagining, creating, striving – will always be needed. Such skills will be central to jobs of the future.
  • Emerging skills: New skills for the future relate to the complexity, density and speed of work. The skill to use a 315mb Excel spreadsheet, or to navigate a drone virtual cockpit. These will enhance our ability to utilise new machines.
  • Eroding skills: Many skills that used to be special are now normal, to manage a social media platform, to product a fantastic presentation, whilst others are redundant like photocopying or replaced like data entry.

However the World Economic Forum suggests that more jobs will be created than lost, 133 million created and 75 million lost over the 5 years to 2025, as we see a huge evolution in the workplace of what people do, as well as how they do it. Top emerging jobs will include:

  • Data analysts and scientists
  • AI and machine learning specialists
  • Software and application developers
  • Sales and marketing professionals
  • Digital transformations specialists

Beyond technology, data and AI, many new roles will also emerge in the broader aspects of engineering and sustainable development. The growth in elderly will drive a boom in care work, and many more creative roles will emerge through relentless innovation and more human pursuits, like sport and entertainment.

Completely new jobs in specific industries will emerge such as

  • Flying car developers
  • Virtual identity defenders
  • Tidewater architects
  • Smart home designers
  • Joy adjutants

Analysis by BCG in 2020 shoes that 95% of most at risk workers could find good quality, higher paid jobs, if they are prepared to make the transition. This shift also offers the opportunity to close the wage gap, with 74% of women and 53% of men likely to find higher paid roles.  It suggests that around 70% of those affected will need to make a significant shift in job, requiring a huge skills revolution.

At the same time, it is not just about refitting people for new jobs. The “dandelion principle”, embraced by organisations like SAP, starts by hiring great people with a diversity of backgrounds and skills to create a richer talent base. It then seeks to build jobs around people, rather than people around jobs, in a more symbiotic way.

More human, more creative, more female

As machines take on our more physical skills, the opportunity is for people to be liberated from the drudgery of repetitive tasks to add more human, creative and emotional value. Imagination will drive progress, whilst machines sustain efficiency.

Human skills matter not only within the workplace, but also in engaging with consumers. In a world of automated interfaces, brands will differentiate  on their ability to be more intuitive, empathic and caring. The roles of people, assistants in stores, nurses in hospitals, teachers in classrooms, will be to add-value with premium levels of service.

Creative skills are not only in demand in the areas of communication, marketing and innovation, but also in rethinking how organisations can better work, how business models can be transformed, and machines themselves deployed in better ways.

Typically these “softer” skills are what we could call more “female” attributes. Of course, that is to stereotype genders, but it certainly requires more empathy than apathy, intuition than evidence, influence than instruction, care than control. At the same time it requires men to adopt these behaviours too, and in general to embrace inequalities and diversity.

BCG’s 2020 research suggests that analytical and critical thinking skills will be crucial to the future of the work, alongside more emotional intelligence and social influence. Learning and creative capabilities will be the most significant growth areas for development in the coming years. They identified these priorities:

  • Analytical thinking and innovation
  • Active learning and learning strategies
  • Creativity, originality and initiative
  • Technology design and programming
  • Critical thinking and analysis
  • Complex problem-solving
  • Leadership and social influence
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Reasoning, problem-solving and ideation
  • Systems analysis and evaluation.

Meta skills, rather than technical or specialist skills which we may have trained for or focused on in the past, will become more significant. These are the more enduring skills which  allow us to evolve and adapt to relentless change. Sensemaking, learning to learn, coping with uncertainty and change.

Sometimes this will require us to unlearn first, to let go of old assumptions and prejudices, and open our minds to new possibilities and perspectives.

In “The 100 Year Life” Lynda Gratton recognises that as life expectancy moves beyond 100, most of us will work for longer, and transition more often, with around seven different phases in our career journeys – not just new jobs, but entirely new vocations.

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