Research & Innovation

Q&A: Lifelong Learning — and Unlearning — Will Power the Future of Work

University of Turku Expert Shares Insights from Surveying Industry, Academia on the Essential Skills for Tomorrow's Businesses

Photo of the University of Turku School of Economics in Finland.
The University of Turku School of Economics has an entire research center devoted to studying the future, which has informed Dr. Milla Wirén's approach to surveying industry and academia about the essential skills for tomorrow's workplace.

When it comes to predicting the future of work, Dr. Milla Wirén doesn't have a crystal ball — but she may have the next best thing.

At the University of Turku’s School of Economics in Finland, where she works as research manager in the Laboratory of Business Disruption Research, there is an entire hub dedicated to peering into the future.

Milla Wirén stands before a window with a city street in the background.
Dr. Milla Wirén is the research manager in the Laboratory of Business Disruption Research, at the University of Turku's School of Economics, in Finland.

“At the Futures Research Center, we have faculty who specialize in doing scientific research on futures, and it has its own methods and methodologies about how to create different scenarios and plausible explanations that make it easier for us to talk about the future,” she said.

Dr. Wirén is currently leading a task force that is closely examining the concept of the future of work and learning, as part of a larger effort by MaCuDE, an AACSB International initiative to reimagine the business education of tomorrow. Short for Management Curriculum for the Digital Era, MaCuDE is composed of nine task forces examining disciplines such as marketing, business analytics and innovation, with an eye to the skills and perspective business schools will have to equip graduates with in order to prepare aspiring leaders for a new and changing workplace. The effort is led by the School of Business at Stevens Institute of Technology, with sponsorship support from PwC and participation from more than 100 business schools worldwide.

Dr. Wirén discussed her findings thus far, as well as what we are learning from the “global-scale experiment” of remote work that the pandemic has ushered in.

What has surprised you most so far in your findings from surveying both industry and academia?

Both concepts, the future and work, are understood so differently depending on whom you ask. There are individuals for whom the future is essentially tomorrow, and for others, the future is essentially 10 years from now. For some, when you talk about work, it's about what we are doing. But, for others, it’s the skills we need or it’s the technology we’ll have. We have responses that paint very visionary pictures, considering very long-term developments of the whole human society. And then we also have answers or discussions that focus on what should we do today in order to have something tangible tomorrow. That really has defined the whole discussion of the future of work.

How are you handling that challenge?

We divided our discussions into these themes, so that we specifically ask people about the future of remote work, or about the future of employment vs. entrepreneurship, or we specifically focus on meta-skills or task-specific skills. That's one way of sort of trying to deal with this diversity, in order to put together a bigger picture of what's happening. 

“People lack any grounding about how to logically explore things that have not happened. We should be able to think about tomorrow better.”

Dr. Milla Wirén, university of turku

In terms of trying to bring everybody aboard regarding future, that is way more difficult because it’s very uncomfortable for some people to envision very big things, very far ahead. We utilized the web crawling team to see how many universities explicitly have classes that focus on themes like foresight or trends or projections, and it seems the emphasis is not there at many universities. People lack any grounding about how to logically explore things that have not happened. We should be able to think about tomorrow better. That's something that comes through quite firmly.

What's one tangible thing schools can do today to better prepare students for whatever tomorrow holds?

I think that the emphasis on meta-skills is really something that has already been acknowledged. Most of us know that whatever we are teaching is bound to become dated at some point. More important is the concept the lifelong learning, which has come up from both the university people and the industry people. We should really be able to teach individuals to continuously learn — and also unlearn — new things. They have to be prepared to unlearn something when the paradigms shift, so that they can build new knowledge on top of that. The meta-skill of learning is something that should be emphasized quite a lot.

How has the pandemic shifted your research?

The increase in remote work is a theme that has been discussed in research for a very long time now, but it has been a hypothesis until now. We have now embarked on a global-scale experiment where we are actually getting data on what are the good things and the downsides of working remotely, both from the perspective of the individual and also the organization. One of the notable things is that, contrary to most organizations’ fears, people are more productive when they are working from home. And for the individuals, it has given sort of flexibility to organize one's working life. But at the same time, it seems that it drives a big risk of burnout because professionals seem unable to distinguish between work and free time. The results are still coming in, though – we’re still living this experiment.

What finding has been most encouraging to you? What makes you most hopeful for the future of work?

No one sees a future where the machines will take over everything. Instead, we will have more and more jobs where there are both technological and human components. It's not a question of machines taking over everything and humans being left redundant with nothing to do and no way to make a living. It's a question of reorganizing and refocusing on the themes that humans are best at, like creativity or judgment, so that we can actually draw from the very best parts of humanity, and then enhance those qualities with the technologies we see emerging.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

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