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Rethinking Work and Jobs in the Exponential Era

By Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells, and Alexandra Whittington
Will any of the jobs that exist today still be around in 20 years? Is automation destined to rewrite all our futures?

Across society, we are beginning to acknowledge that smart technologies could transform every aspect of business, work, government, and our daily lives. We are already used to seeing faceless robots undertaking repetitive manufacturing tasks, and smart applications determining our credit ratings, autopiloting planes, and delivering an array of functionality to our mobile devices. But this is just the start; the next waves of development will see the coming together  of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, big data, and cloud services. The combinatorial effect of these exponential technologies is really what creates the opportunity for machines to interact with humans through the provision of services rather than simply delivering us data, analysis, and decision support.

If we look further into the future, the workplace of tomorrow is going to be very different from today. Imagine a workplace with humans, augmented humans, robots, holograms, and display-based AI manifestations all working in the same space. As a human, do you trust your robot colleague? What happens when the robot is smarter than you? How will we respond when the AI application working 24/7/365 complains that we are simply not learning or working fast enough to keep up with it? As a Human Resources Manager, how do you manage and monitor such a work force? What happens when the smart robot wants to take a vacation or brings a harassment case against its human colleague?

The Future of Work

It seems that whatever the country, whatever the economic context, the critical question is becoming ever more pertinent: What is the future of work in an era of exponential technology development? Artificial intelligence is arguably the big game changer and becoming more commonplace. We already see narrow AI in use in internet searches, customer targeting applications, and in predictive analytics. But AI has much greater capability that will emerge into every aspect of our lives in the future. Increasingly devices will learn more about us, provide an ever-increasing range of support, and take on more of our tasks. We are automating a lot more activity in literally every sector, and that is set to continue at an accelerating rate.

The goal for some—regarded as unappealing and potentially dangerous by others—is for AI to replicate human intelligence. That does create questions of the balance in society between human and machine. What are the ethical and control questions that need to be answered to ensure we harness the potential of AI in service of society and not just the technology corporations?

Future of Business

At Fast Future, in our recent book The Future of Business, we identified thirty different trillion-dollar industry sectors of the future which we grouped into clusters. We expect these clusters and the under- lying industries to be impacted radically by exponential technology developments:

  • Information and communications;
  • Production and construction systems;
  • Citizen services and domestic infrastructure;
  • New societal infrastructure and services;
  • Transformation of existing sectors such accounting, legal, and financial services;
  • Energy and environment.

So, we can clearly see the significant disruptive potential that technology offers to emerging sectors and the new players within them. The McKinsey Global Institute made a forecast of which technologies will drive the economy of the future. They predict that mobile internet, the automation of work knowledge, the Internet of things (where many factory, office, and household devices and appliances are connected to the internet), and cloud computing will all form part of a transformative information technology (IT) backdrop and be the most significant creators of new economic value. They also singled out advanced robotics and autonomous vehicles as playing a significant part in future economic growth.

Future Skills and Management Challenges

Given the importance of the issue, it is not surprising that there have been several research projects exploring what this scale of technological change could mean for the future of work. Pew Research (2014) posed the question, “Will networked, auto- mated, AI and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?” Their key findings were:

  • 48% of respondents said that robots and digital agents will displace significant numbers of blue-collar and white-collar workers;
  • Society would see increases in income inequality, significant numbers of unemployable people, and breakdowns in the social order;
  • Conversely, 52% said technology will not displace more jobs than it creates. Lost jobs would be offset by human ingenuity creating new occupations, and industries; and,
  • This group also pointed out that current social structures (e.g. education) are not adequately preparing people for the skills needed in the future job market.

A 2013 study on the Future of Employment by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of the Oxford Martin School explored the probability of computerization for 702 occupations and asked, “Which jobs are most vulnerable?”7 The study found that 47% of workers in the US had jobs at high risk of potential automation. The most at-risk groups were transport and logistics (taxi and delivery drivers), sales and services (cashiers, counter and rental clerks, telemarketers, and accountants), and office support (receptionists and security guards). The equivalent at risk workers were 35% of the workforce in the UK and 49% in Japan.

A 2016 McKinsey Global Institute report looked at the automation of the global economy.8 The findings were based on a study that explored 54 countries representing 95% of global GDP and more than 2,000 work activities. The study found that the proportion of jobs that can be fully automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology is less than 5%, although for middle-skill categories this could rise to 20%. It also said that based on current technologies, 60% of all jobs have at least 30% of their activities that are technically automatable. The research found that, ultimately, automation technologies could affect 49% of the world economy; 1.1 billion employees and US$12.7 trillion in wages. China, India, Japan, and the US account for more than half of these totals. The report concluded that it would be more than two decades before automation reaches 50% of all of today’s work activities.

The World Economic Forum’s 2016 study into The Future of Jobs saw an increasingly dynamic jobs landscape.9 It estimated that 65% of children entering primary school today will work in job types that don’t yet exist, and that 3.5 times as many jobs could be lost to disruptive labor market changes in the period 2015–2020 than are created. While the study saw job losses in routine white-collar office functions, it saw gains in computing, mathematics, architecture, and engineering related fields. The report identified several job categories and functions that are expected to become critically important by 2020:

  • Data analysts – leveraging big data and AI;
  • Specialized sales representatives – commercializing and articulating new propositions; and,
  • Senior managers and leaders – to steer companies through the upcoming change and disruption.

In addition, the report concluded that, “By 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job today. Social skills—such as persuasion, emotional intelligence, and teaching others—will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control.”

Our own view is that we could well see 80% or more of current jobs disappearing in the next 20 years. Some will become obsolete, others will be fully or partially automated and, in many cases, tasks will  be redesigned to eliminate the need for human input and decision making. The big question here is whether these jobs will be replaced by the combination of entrepreneurship, increased investment in education, adult training, human endeavor, and the rise of the six sector clusters described above. While we don’t know the answer, we don’t have to wait—there is a lot we can do today to prepare for possible disruption.

For example, at the individual level, there are new skills we need to think about acquiring now to equip us for the world of work in the future. We all like to work in a world that is calm, stable, and predictable but the reality is very different. That world is changing ever faster, so we need to become proficient at developing and working with a new set of survival skills for the 21st century which include foresight, curiosity, sense making, accelerated learning, a tolerance of uncertainty, scenario thinking, coping with complexity, and collaborative working.

So What for HR?

We are heading into a world of wicked problems that will require not “Ordinary Management,” but “Extraordinary  Leadership.” The leadership and management style required when working in uncertain situations can be challenging. For Ordinary Management we apply accepted best practice approaches; it’s the domain of trend extrapolation, tame problems, and technical challenges. But in the increasingly disruption filled world we are heading into, we require Extraordinary Leadership because our challenges are difficult or impossible to solve due to unpredictable trend paths, incomplete and contradictory information, and changing requirements that are often difficult to define or agree upon. We need the ability to navigate a rapidly changing reality, make decisions with imperfect information, and to tune our intuition to “sense and respond” when surrounded by an array of relatively weak signals of what might happen next.

A critical requirement here is to determine the organizational capacity to work in new ways including envisioning the future and making sense of complexity—it seems to us that HR could play a big role in developing these core capabilities.

We are in a rapidly changing world, one that is increasingly technology driven, one that will host more generations in parallel—with their divergent work/life wants and needs—than we have seen before. One that is highly likely to see a revolutionary change in jobs as we know them today, one that will see the birth of new jobs, and the demise of others. One that could ultimately see not working as the new normal.

 

  • How is HR helping to create a generationally and technologically diverse culture?
  • What role is HR playing in driving culture changes that help align the organization with the constantly evolving interplay between customer strategies, their resulting requirements, and our own business propositions and capabilities?
  • How is HR using technology to streamline and automate activities such as performance management, learning and development, resource planning, and sourcing and thus free up time for these more strategic tasks by?
  • Is there an opportunity for the Human Resources function to transition to one of Resource Management—adopting a more business–wide strategic role—to meet the organization’s business objectives?

This article is excerpted from Beyond Genuine Stupidity – Ensuring AI Serves Humanity. You can order the book here.

 

Image:https://pixabay.com/images/id-797267/ by geralt

 

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