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Three ways college grads can master the threat of automation

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The millennial generation is now the largest segment of the workforce, and they're finding their footing at the same time as automation. Judging by its momentum, artificial intelligence could be the most influential force on work during their lifetime. The ability to leverage technology and harness automation will be as important in 20 years as understanding how to operate a computer is in today's workforce.

For both topics, pundits are either fearful ("It's the end of the world!") or optimistic ("It's a whole new world!"). Count me in the "optimistic" camp when it comes to machines and millennials. Taking the lead from the old school management theorist Peter Drucker: "The best way to predict the future is to create it." Now is an exciting time because workers have an opportunity to influence and define the direction of this seismic shift.

In fact, imagine a Venn diagram, the sweet spot--the place with the brightest future--is where the millennial generation, the machines and the experienced overlap. For college grads, and for the whole economy and community, there is a real opportunity to drive rather than just be passengers. But how?

1: Master the concept of teamwork

Before talking about automation, collaboration needs to be addressed. Remember how dreadful group projects could be in school? Well, teamwork rules the real world, and to succeed, workers must understand how to develop effective communication habits, determine what's right for their team and build trust with colleagues. They must also exhibit empathy by understanding those they work with on a deeper level. Once this is done with human team members, workers can better figure out how leverage automation for the team's good.

Speaking of teams, millennials should be aware that the new modern business model is moving toward more autonomous teams and a bottoms-up style to solving problems. That's a shift from traditional organizational charts where power and position was rewarded for time served, not necessarily intelligence or potential. But automation and new tech don't care about positional power, and this generation has shown to be more motivated by purpose, rather than a chart or title. Look for companies that embrace this.

2: Curiosity is the new currency

Ask these questions: Does someone really have 20 years of experience if they've done the same thing for 20 years on a row? Or do they have one year of experience 20 times? Learning doesn't end with a college degree. In the new world of automation and industry-wide disruption, the new currency is curiosity and continual experimentation to learn and grow. Learning and growing comes in many forms, including failure, volatility and uncertainty, but as long as workers can embrace that idea they can thrive. They should constantly be evolving because titles aren't everything. Often, they're nothing much at all. People should seek out what interests them and continue to grow rather than get stuck in a title and job description. Imaginary bounders should never lock someone in.

3: Simplicity and complexity can co-exist

When looking at the problems companies are solving, the rate of tech change and the amount of ambiguity, the world suddenly starts to feel very complex. But it can be easily simplified.

Simplicity requires taking a step back, seeking to understand the job to be done and finding the best way to fulfill that need. Think about Henry Ford, a champion of automation at the turn of the last century. If he had asked customers what they wanted, they'd have demanded a faster horse. Instead, Ford simplified the parameters of the problem first before he built an incredibly complex, revolutionary solution that no one could have imagined or expected.

2020 is just about 1,000 days away, and it's a year that's discussed with both fear and optimism. As long as millennials come into the workplace with empathy, an open mind and passion to learn and adapt, the future of teamwork will be bright – including both humans and those blessed machines.

Commentary by Dom Price, head of R&D and work futurist at Atlassian.

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