Isabel Wu is a business management practitioner, trainer and coach specialising in the intersection of workers, customers and organisations. She established Meta Management in 2003, a consultancy which today focuses on helping its clients to develop and manage the ‘people parts’ needed to succeed as the future of work emerges becomes a reality. Isabel began her career in the service industry and completed a Bachelor of Business with a double major in marketing and organisation development/organisation behaviour. Over three decades experience in business and management since, she has honed her expertise in the human side of enterprise. The insights she gained along the way led her to write The Michelangelo Project, examining the nature of work in an increasingly automated world.
She lives in Melbourne with her husband, their teenage daughter and cat.
What prompted you to write this book?
In a single word, fear. We are simply not taking the degree of change ahead of us seriously enough.
I've been participating in 'future of work' discussions for the past decade. The potential opportunities and risks: for business, new jobs, the economy and society, meant there was a lot we had to know and figure out in order to prepare for the technologies that were reshaping how we lived and worked. Over this time, we have seen digital capabilities expand. Advances such as IoT (Internet of Things), AI, machine learning, 3D printing and 5G, are increasingly displacing our old ways of using technology as tools. Instead, we have technology that replaces tasks and augments the work it can't replace.
What isn't happening is a new way of ordering how we work. Industrial laws, education, job structures and employment systems today should be barely recognisable to anyone from the four or five decades past. Instead, they are, apart from superficial differences, identical. We are already feeling the effects of the failure to adapt the way we work with more people engaging in short-term, insecure and poor quality work. Young people are experiencing anxiety that whatever they do will be inadequate. Inequality is raising the level of intolerance in society. Bad actors in power stir these problem to generate support for their regressive policies.
Productive discussions need context and the only context on the future of work provided by the media has been robots are taking our jobs, and that (old) jobs need to be protected. So the drive to write The Michelangelo Project came from the thought that if I could provide a greater context to the changes we are facing, it would encourage better discussions about the future of work. These discussions could then be broken down into actions. More importantly, I think it is giving people the knowledge - the power - to take control of their future instead of relying on our major institutions whose vested interests lie with keeping things the way they are for as long as possible.
What books influenced you and do you enjoy reading?
I have always loved reading. I was the school bookworm! I went to school in the pre-computerised days when to borrow a book, you filled your name out on a card. The school librarian commented that all the readers at school knew my name because every time they borrowed a book, my name was already on the card.
Crime thrillers are my favourite fiction genre. I love facts and trivia and am so easily distracted by looking up facts or checking references in a book, that I need a fast-paced crime/thriller book to keep me reading. Otherwise, I would stop so often, I take ages to finish a book.
"In Search of Excellence" by Tom Peters and Robert Waternan was a significant book in my personal history. The idea of management as more than a functional role was a revelation. The other major influence was Peter Drucker. He wrote that a business has only one purpose: to create customers. That meant a business has only two primary functions: marketing and innovation. I understood then, and still believe now, that an effective management is underpinned by marketing - understanding what customers want - because if you get that wrong, all other decisions won't matter.
Some of my recent favourite reads are: "The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money" by Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier; "Blind Spot: Why We Fail to See the Solution Right in Front of Us" by Gordon Rugg; "Status Anxiety" by Alain de Botton; and "Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning" by Regina Lee Blaszczyk.
The Michelangelo Project explores the evolution of work since the First Industrial Revolution to an uncertain digital future of work. Using Michelangelo’s story as a narrative framework, readers will learn to build their value-creating skills and lose their fear of dwindling jobs to pursue their careers with confidence and purpose.