It is almost exactly 200 years ago that The Luddites, a group of weavers in England, began destroying machinery in protest at their skills being replaced by machines. They saw these skills being eroded and devalued and felt moved to take violent action to prevent this happening. Our current rapid advances in technology, and particularly artificial intelligence, present us with similar challenges. We could witness similar extreme responses. We have already experienced increased automation in manufacturing, replacing manual skills for instance in the automotive industry. But this replacement of skills is even today moving beyond manual skills. The next level of automation is going to affect “white-collar, knowledge work” jobs. The sort of jobs that many aspire to, getting good grades at school and university, and applying for careers in large corporations.
There are already examples of bureaucratic jobs being replaced by artificial intelligence. There is even a recent example of managerial jobs being replaced by complex algorithms. In the world of human resources, there have even been experiments where intelligent systems have made comparable judgements in the recruitment process to experienced managers. As these technologies get smarter, and perhaps most importantly learn from their own activities, the range of roles which they will be able to replace will expand. The newspapers are full of such stories. Their frequency seems only likely to increase.
How do we help organisations get ready for this change? What sort of attitudes, mindsets, and approaches are likely to work? What sort of jobs will not be able to be replaced by computers, at least in the short term?
We tend to think that those jobs that require human insight are safe. But what does this actually mean? Isn’t insight just an awareness of patterns of behaviour? Isn’t it being able to anticipate future actions on the basis of past actions? Every time we apply a Myers Briggs analysis of an individual, or determine their salary on a Towers Perrin evaluation, and then record our actions in a computer or online system, we are potentially teaching that system how to replicate our decisions. And unlike us, those systems learn 24-hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. They will increasingly connect with other systems learning other aspects of the role of management, sharing what they have learned more effectively and more efficiently than we ever did. I love the story about Google cars not fully turning off when you put them in a garage but “dreaming”. They connect with other Google cars operating in nearby areas that they haven’t yet visited and learn in advance of potential risks and the best routes!
Clearly, these are still early days in terms of these technologies but it doesn’t take much imagination to see where they’re headed. Not only does it not take too much imagination, but more and more people are becoming aware of what appears to be inevitable. Your staff are just as capable of reading the articles in the newspapers about these advances and predicted futures for the workplace as you are. They are already beginning to wonder what this means for them in the future.
This could go either way. We could either end up with workplaces that are much more human. Once the drudgery and boring jobs are done by computers we could be free to focus on relationships, networks, and creativity. This could mean a return to more satisfying and rewarding work lives. It could mean less stress and pressure.
The alternative scenario is that we exaggerate existing extremes with increasingly small groups of people making disproportionate amounts of money and the rest left discarded and neglected. This dystopian outcome would have devastating consequences for the fabric of society. Never mind Luddites fighting against the loss of their own jobs, mass redundancy would leave thousands, if not millions, of people with time on their hands and you can easily see rioting on the streets could be the consequence.
If this happens society is going to have to consider what it does with all the people who no longer have jobs. We are likely to have to rethink the perceived value of having a job. Status and a sense of self have been long associated with what we do for a living. There are many examples of managers feeling lost and bewildered when they eventually retire, as if they have lost their identity.
Having been through a period of corporate downsizing, where the job for life no longer exists, staff are already becoming more realistic about how far they can trust their employers. Corporations that are charged with maximising shareholder value are duty bound to explore the most cost-effective ways of producing value. Automation and intelligent systems are clearly an unavoidable option.
The challenge with the loss of jobs on the scale we are likely to face is that at the moment we have nothing to replace them with. Our lives are so structured around work that having nothing is intimidating. Not everyone can be a freelance consultant. You yourselves will be facing similar challenges. Your jobs are just as much at risk as anyone else’s. What would help you? What would it take to make you feel more confident about your future?
One of the main reasons that people react violently to change is fear of the unknown. What frightens people most is not being treated like grown-ups. They will know when their jobs are routine and boring. They may even be grateful for the opportunity to move on to something more interesting and challenging. This was certainly the case during redundancies I presided over when a manager at the BBC. People who had been discarded by the system, and were feeling uncomfortable and disrespected, suddenly became entrepreneurial and found a new lease of life when made redundant.
In a time when technology is rampant and is being sold as the solution to every problem we have ever had, ironically, this affords us the possibility of making more of what it means to be human. Insight, creativity, relationships, trust, caring, passion, tolerance. These are very human characteristics that even the most intelligent machines will struggle to emulate. They are also the aspects of work that have traditionally been the focus of human resources departments. Who is better placed to focus on and enhance these aspects of work than you are?
Arguably we have spent the last few decades trying to homogenise the workplace. Reducing friction often meant reducing difference. Easily replicable processes called for decline in individuality. But repeatable patterns are the very things that machines are good at replacing. We will need help remembering how to be human. We will need to find the confidence to be different. We will need to learn to tolerate messiness and imprecision in pursuit of innovation and creativity. We will also need help in remembering how to build and maintain networks.
Rather than relying on the organisation chart and meeting schedules to dictate who we talk to, why, and when, we will need to focus on building trust with interesting people who can help us do what we have to do. Social networking tools, for all their faults, are powerful aids in doing this. Being able to think better, share better, and learn better from each other will be key skills in business in the future. Getting better at these skills can start now. Human resources Department should be leading the way.
Learning what impact new technologies will have on your business, anticipating the impact that this will have on the people the work for you, anticipating how this will impact you, all of this can be made more easily achievable by a astute use of online technologies. Being able to reach out and connect with people who may not be in the same office at the the same building as you is made easier. Identify who is best placed to help you to do what you need to do has never been easier. But you need to learn how to do it. You need to help others to learn how to do it.
Of course none of this guarantees that any of us will have a job in 20 years time. But it does make it more likely that we will build the skills necessary to deal with whatever happens.