I have been getting a bit muddled recently. Are we 2.0 or 3.0 currently? Not sure? Me neither.
However, I have been seeing more and more articles either focusing on the masses of jobs that will not exist in the future or the more positive slant of the raft of brand new ones that never previously existed. I think that this makes it difficult for firms and individuals to invest in their staff or technology or plan much beyond a week on Tuesday. Each decision suddenly feels VERY BIG.
Our eldest son has been looking at jobs since leaving college but each one that he suggested received a sharp intake of breath from me followed by, I think robots will be doing that in 10 years time.
But will they?
I met with a true digital business last month, a firm, just 4 years old that has garnered much positive press and private equity investment. Their CEO said to me that her biggest investment after people (note…. after people) was her website and its functionality. She has been helped recently by a slug of new PE financing but she quite rightly focuses on automation on the boring bits and people on the human interaction side. She said.. “Take the people away and we don’t have a business, it’s as simple as that” I asked whether she could see a time that with AI that she wouldn’t need people and she responded with an emphatic “No”
I remember reading one of the those ‘vision 2000’ documents that was doing the rounds 20+ years ago that said unless you had a creative, original thinking mind-set that by 2020 your job would be redundant. I am not sure quite what they meant by that but it clearly has not come to pass. That said, there are changes afoot and it would be ostrich-like to ignore these.
A recent report by McKinsey suggested that 1/3 of our tasks could be automated which sounded like a great thing to me. Freeing a chunk of my day to do more creative stuff… like writing blogs and less time working out whether everyone had accepted a skype meeting invite and whether they had login details. Bring it on !
Often the demise of jobs is very much exaggerated. My colleague Paul Atkinson recently highlighted a great example of something we were all convinced would happen but hasn’t, albeit not in the way we thought and that is Home-Working. Around the turn of the century, firms were gearing themselves up for a workforce all based from home. The technology had finally arrived where you could communicate effectively, clearly and didn’t feel out of the loop. One outsourcer I know decided to close their Procurement department offices and base their teams from home. The savings were enormous for an organisation that had a procurement team based (it seemed to me) in every major city in the UK. However, with a few exceptions, Home-Working hasn’t become the norm because, as we now know, that people need the social side of work and a couple of ‘break-out zones’ just won’t cut it.
I think more importantly that a few extremely positive developments have happened. Firstly that most firms recognise that employees need and want more flexibility in their working week and home-working amongst other initiatives provides this, so rather than a cost-saving it is a retention and productivity gain. Secondly that the development of a sector very close to Formation Group’s heart is the Workspace sector has arrived, led by such firms as WeWork where organisations and individuals enjoy a contemporary working experience.
But back to jobs. I think we can see that adoption of new tech is typically very slow. I fully expected the taxi firm in my home town to have closed by now due to self-drive cars and automation. I now think, I may never see this. As someone said to me recently, what is the biggest innovation of the last 100 years? The internet? Micro-chip? No, indoor toilets, yes really. So I don’t think the rate of change, whilst it feels fast, will result in seismic shifts overnight.
The, deep breath, Institute of Public Policy Research Commission on Economic Justice says that increases in productivity will reshape sectors and jobs and that the gains will result in a reallocation rather than elimination.
On a lighter note, one of my favourite authors Matthew Syed wrote an article in the Times recently where he reminded us of DeepMind’s AI programme AlphaZero which became the most formidable chess player in the world as well as generating all-time highest scores at Asian board games such as Shogi. Impressive huh? Yes, until he suggests you google ‘robot football’ and have a giggle. With a more pedestrian game like darts, you would think it would be straight-forward as, unlike football, nothing moves apart from the dart. However, the enormous complexity around throwing a dart requires huge computations, way beyond anything we possess today or likely to in the near future. So robot-darts is some way off.
I think that tech will not replace us in the near future. As Psychology Today point out, society always lags behind technology advances, not the other way. I think that’s probably true and always will be.