What is Your Real Job (Even if it’s Not in Your Job Description)?

Fred was a part of the original community of grantmakers that eventually became PCP. He is also the Founder of The Gathering, which he led for three decades. He currently serves on the board of the Buford Foundation, where he continues to be active in grantmaking. Yet Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher, and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. He is a Navy veteran and a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. Fred and his wife Carol live in Tyler, TX and have two grown daughters, a son-in-law, and four grandchildren.

In 1992, Peter Drucker in the Harvard Business Review wrote, “In a matter of decades, society altogether rearranges itself – its worldview, its basic values, its social and political structures, its arts, its key institutions. Fifty years later a new world exists. And the people born into that world cannot even imagine the world in which their grandparents lived and into which their own parents were born. Our age is such a period of transformation.”

For Drucker that meant the shift from other forms of labor and capital to knowledge. The acquisition and productive utilization of knowledge would be more important to the economy and the whole of society than any other form of capital. It was the beginning of what we now call the “knowledge society.” 

Each one of you is a knowledge worker. That is your primary value to your principal, at least for now. Yes, your relationship with them is important, as is your experience, judgment, intuition and trustworthiness. All of those qualities are highly valued and, some might say, irreplaceable. However, in a conversation with Quentin Walz of DataKind last year, he and I talked about the high likelihood of Artificial Intelligence, as distinct from Machine learning, being able to do 90% of the work of foundation staff within the next five years. AI is not the same as machine learning. Machine learning focuses specifically on the development of algorithms and models that allow computers to learn from data and make predictions or decisions without being explicitly programmed. AI is much broader in that it involves developing systems that can perform tasks that typically require human intelligence, such as perception, reasoning, learning, and problem-solving. Crunching data or making predictions and decisions from identifying patterns is far less sophisticated and game changing than a technology that actually mirrors human intelligence. Of course, it is the intelligence piece of knowledge that has far more value for our work. It is the work of meaning and not simply manipulating information.

However, if AI can do everything you currently are doing with knowledge and information – and do it faster, better and cheaper – then how will you adapt to that new world? In a recent article for Business Insider, Matt Turner quotes a tech executive who said, “Mediocrity will be automated.” Is all of this nothing but bad news for grantmakers?

No, it is not. In fact for those who learn to use AI in their work there will be even more opportunities for growth. This will be especially true for those of you who are new to this field because you will not have to adapt to new tools. You will be using AI from the very beginning, and the lessons learned and experience of veterans will be already baked into it. 

Of course, there will be a great deal of hype about AI followed by both disappointments and discoveries for even more applications. How many innovations like VHS, dial-up internet, fax machines, and floppy disks have come and gone? Yet, there are others as old as the sextant for navigation and the printing press that changed the world permanently. There will be markets for AI products that were never anticipated, in the same way that bubble wrap was originally designed as textured wall paper, Play-Doh as wallpaper cleaner and Botox as treatment for muscle spasms. We don’t know for sure whether AI is the sextant or bubble wrap – or something actually sinister.

What is most important, I believe, is what Clayton Christensen coined as “job theory” – the discipline of determining the real job you have been hired to do that cannot otherwise be done better, cheaper and faster by either machine learning or Artificial Intelligence. Job theory says we all “hire” products or services to help us accomplish a specific task. It may be functional, emotional or social but it is something we want to achieve. In this new era of innovation it is a priority for you to define as clearly as possible what your principal wants to achieve and how you can do that by using all these tools. What is the real job you have been hired to do? What tools will you use to do that – as only a human can?

AI can scour and scrape the web for information but (for now) the information is not absolutely reliable or current. What is unique to your role is trust and creative discernment, as well as the ability to build relationships with credible professional resources. That is also the great opportunity for PCP. Fast learning, experience, a network of trusted resources and perspective based on years of practice will be an invaluable contribution that PCP can make to this growing field. 

Foundations don’t do immediate. Principals don’t do immediate. You have time. For the moment this may be “a cloud smaller than a man’s hand rising from the sea” but sooner than we expect the sources, preparation, work, and continuing professional development of foundation staff will change. This is a great opportunity not only for individual staff but for the growth and relevance of PCP. Together they will create value for principals that will take the field to a new level of competence, value and creativity. 

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1 Comment

  1. Ty Stakes on July 20, 2023 at 10:52 am

    Great word and thoughts, Fred! Thanks. I resonate with the “job theory” point, especially as it relates to the relational aspects of our work which are driven by relationship, trust, creativity and vision/imagination…not to mention Spirit-led missional obedience. Ai may be able to streamline a lot of processes, but it will never replace people serving together in the “communion of giving and receiving” to build the Kingdom that lasts!

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