Workforce Development in the Robot Age

Changes are needed in education and one aspect is to develop the creative capacities of students including students at the post-secondary level. But, creativity can not just be a bolt on to an existing program. I think an approach is needed to see creativity as a part of wider social cultural activities and not just make it an isolated skill.

This was a very needed article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed today: “Robot-Proof: How Colleges Can Keep People Relevant in the Workplace“.

This is a comment I made:

Great piece and concept, but there is a bit of a “build it and they will come” aspect. We act into a social cultural field and this field needs to change with education. First, creativity can only occur in a personnel context in which business is ready to accept it; to know what to do with it. Not addressing this just leaves students hanging while trying to exercise creativity. Second, creativity often needs a deep level of disciplinary or functional analysis, not just a surface level. A good example are design processes that get deep into the weeds to understand what is needed. Another example is Audrey Walter’s lament about the lack of appreciation for the history and theory of education by Ed Tech efforts:
“all around me, I see Skinnerism – click-for-immediate-feedback. People as pigeons. Zynga. Farmville. Gamification. But without the language and the theory and the history to say, “hey we recognized in the mid 1960s that this was a wretched path, one with all sorts of anti-democratic repercussions,” we’re not just making the same mistakes again, we’re actually engaging in reactionary practices – politically, pedagogically.”

Another critique I missed is the behavioral critique of big data that is implied by the author’s view that analysis will be the purvey of artificial intelligence. Analysis is necessary for creativity and this level of analysis is not part of robot capability.

Research Recommendations on Supporting and Developing Creative Environments: A review of the article: Creative Knowledge Environments

This is a follow-up to my creativity post of 6-15-2009

Reference: Hemlin, S., Allwood, C.M. & Martin, B.R. Creative Knowledge Environments (2006). Creativity Research Journal, 20, (2), pp. 196-210.  Which is also available online here.

First the results.  In my reading, the recommended conditions should have:

  • clear (and coordinated) objectives;
  • a research culture built over time;
  • a supportive and cooperative group climate that seeks and respects diverse thought in identifying salient problem features (sense-making);
  • strong vision with leadership in stimulating, structuring and promoting ideas;
  • a flat decentralized organizational structure giving appropriate autonomy to individuals linked by collective goals;
  • supportive and clear communication styles in a highly interactive environment (high levels of social capital) able to mediate any potential clash of ideas;
  • adequate resources (time, funding, equipment, library materials . . . etc.);
  • diverse individual characteristics (discipline, institution, cultural, social, geographical, motivational, etc. . .) with strong and varied individual competencies appropriate for the discipline(s) or field(s) involved;
  • appropriate quality control (although not in too excessive or intrusive a form);
  • an institutional base with an established reputation and visibility’
  • strong but flexible links with individuals both inside and outside of the organization
  • respect for breaking routines when necessary and for taking appropriate risks.

The paper notes that innovation tends to cluster geographically and reasons that:

innovative activities involve a significant element of tacit, embedded, and to some extent locally bound, or ‘sticky’ knowledge that is best communicated face-to-face . . . facilitated by small distances (Asheim & Gertler, 2004)


Looking primarily at the processes that lead to creative products this paper is attempting to identify what:

. . . types of factors are thought to either enhance and hinder creative output, but we are still in the early stages of finding empirical correlates as well as potential constellations of policies and leadership initiatives.

A definition from the paper (paraphrased):

Creative Knowledge Environments are environments, contexts, and surroundings (teams, companies, regions, nations) that exert a positive influence on human beings engaged in creative work producing innovative products.


The authors consider 3 levels of environments macro, meso and micro levels.  In addition they also provide the following more detailed classification schema for characterizing details of specific environments:

Components of Knowledge Environments and their Characteristics

Task characteristics: short-term/long-term, simple/complex, routine/novel, modularised/integrated

Discipline/field: natural sciences VS engineering VS social sciences VS humanities, theoretical VS experimental VS modelling, basic/applied, single paradigm VS multiple paradigms VS pre-paradigmatic, reductionist/‘holistic’, discipline-based/inter- or multi-disciplinary, influence of ‘epistemic community’

Individuals: knowledge, skills, abilities, cognitive style (e.g. broad/narrow, focused/eclectic), motivation, interests, career plans, values, beliefs, other personality properties (e.g. introvert/extrovert)

Group characteristics: size, integrated/loosely coupled, inward looking (‘group think’) VS outward- looking, leadership style, degree of group tension/harmony, heterogeneity/homogeneity of group members, ‘chemistry’ of personalities in the group, composition of knowledge, skills and abilities, agreed on or contested beliefs or underlying assumptions

General work situation for individuals: number of different work tasks or projects, features of time available for research (e.g. sparse/abundant, fragmented or concentrated), job ambiguity (total autonomy VS narrowly defined goals), quality of IT available (including the usability)

Physical environment: facilities, buildings, architecture, location, climate, equipment

Organisation: income sources, economic situation, organisational structure and culture, reward profile, leadership and managerial style (e.g. controlling/allowing), degree of organisational tension/harmony

Extra-organisational environment: small/large economy, expanding/decreasing economy, market characteristics (e.g. open/restricted, global/regional, competitive/monopoly), reward profile, information availability (open/closed), job opportunities and mobility, regional, national and cultural characteristics

Each of the above classifications can be divided into the elements of the social domain (“openness to new ideas or innovation, relations between colleagues or organisations, and routines for the upkeep of equipment”) and the cognitive domain (“bodies of knowledge and skills, cognitive work style and thinking style (e.g. adopting an experimental or ‘trial and error’ approach).  The cognitive domain can also be analyzes for spacial distributed aspects.  Environments can also be classified by the Triple Helix of industry, government, and non-profit.  Although these classifications will effect environments, it is likely that creating positive conditions for creativity will share much more across institutional types than they will differ.


These are general findings the authors derive from the literature and could be considered general recommendations for looking at the creative potential of individuals:

Internal motivation is generally seen as more important in relation to creativity. . .

Many researchers stress the prior need for quite extensive knowledge of the domain.  . . .

individuals should be given sufficient time and opportunities for practice and learning to occur.  . . .

creative problem-solving might rely more on “weak methods” (general problem solving skills)

In general, creative persons show greater openness to experience(,) higher tolerance for ambiguity (and have) flatter hierarchies of associations’ (i.e. having many associations for a particular stimulus with a fairly equal probability for each association, and with associations being easily affected by internal and external events)

Although the authors discuss other personality aspects of creative people, but the research seems more correlational than causational and sometimes conflicting.  I’m reluctant at this time to place much weight on other recommendations regarding personality.