UK: Power Up: Pragmatism Amidst Uncertainty

Last Updated: 14 August 2017
Article by Jemma Venables

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

The future of work can feel like an imminent and overwhelming issue that requires drastic and immediate action. We know we need to do something, but coming up with a pragmatic, future-proof plan is hard.

So, what can we do to prepare ourselves and our organisations?

  • Don't worry too much about predicting future technology
  • Instead, build up a nimble workforce that can spot opportunities to innovate and have the confidence to implement it
  • Be sensitive to the cultural change required from our workforce to work collaboratively alongside machines

Why shouldn't we try to predict future technology?

There is no fixed time frame for moving from concept to reality in technology development.

For example, just 15 years ago experts thought that lorry drivers could never be automated. Last year, Google's driverless car fleet drove one million miles.

On the other hand, the idea of creating robots in our own image has been around for centuries. Leonardo da Vinci had the first attempt with his mechanical knight. This knight could do basic things like stand, sit, raise its visor and independently move its arms. Six centuries on, we still don't have a convincing humanoid robot. 

Our world won't always be transformed by the technologies that we expect. This is no reason to be passive in preparing for the future. History tells us that technology creates more jobs than it destroys. It also tells us that the same skills that have always been valuable to employers remain unchanged despite advances in technology. These high value attributes centre around social skills and problem solving skills, and they remain human skills.

We can't predict future technology well enough to build an organisational strategy on it. But we can invest in making our workforce as agile as possible.

How do we build a nimble workforce, fit for the future?

Even though we will all be affected differently by automation, we will all be affected. The more repetitive and predictable your job is, the more likely you are to be affected. Physical robots can operate machinery or move stock around. Algorithms can now automatically raise invoices, undertake knowledge work (see recent Deloitte Review piece) and are starting to be used as diagnostic tools in the medical field.

For many, this will be a blessing. Imagine what your day would look like if all the repetitive elements of your job disappeared. Maybe you would be able to leave work on time. Maybe you would have time to think creatively and deeply about the more challenging areas of your job.

Perhaps unexpectedly, it is the same skills that are important for most occupations in the UK. The thing that changes is the depth of skill that is required.

Robots have been less successful (so far) at mimicking these high-value skills like active listening and critical thinking. So, although all of our jobs will change, even those who need to change career completely are going to need to upskill rather than completely reskill.

The changes technology will bring are likely to be pervasive. The workforce will need to be flexible and probably more mobile. The ability to acquire new knowledge and apply it in different workplaces will be really important.

The investment to create a workforce with the skills and flexibility to face the future of work is a worthwhile one. As Josh Bersin writes in a recent piece on the 21st century career, it will be evermore important for organisations to encourage continuous learning, improve individual mobility, fostering a 'growth mindset' in every employee.

Alongside skills, to make the most of automation, we will need acceptance from our workforce

The different 'ages' that humanity and technology have evolved through together have been talked about a lot. Moving from the 'information' age to the 'augmented' age will be unsettling for lots of us. In the past, technology has been a discrete tool with a specific purpose, very much under human control. In future, we will augment our human capacity in a much more intelligent, intimate, and some might say, invasive way.  

The pace and fluidity of this transition to the augmented age, will largely depend upon human acceptance. This may not be the same for every culture. There is a marked difference between the way that, say, the Japanese embrace robots and the way that we do in the West. Some have suggested that this could be due to something as simple as how robots are depicted in films. In Japan they are often depicted as heroes, whereas in the West they are more likely to be villains.

In Japan, households appear much more open to robot relationships, whether they be for practical help or companionship. However, in the West, robots have brought out our dark-side. There are reports of children bullying robots when they think that no-one is watching. Another example is the adults who decapitated poor Hitchbot. Hitchbot is, or was, a Canadian robot who tried to hitchhike coast-to-coast in the US, sharing stories along the way.

These negative responses can be managed through sensitive design. Research suggests that where robots adapt to a human's rhythm (like a robotic arm passing the dishes to a human dishwasher), the collaborative experience is a positive and productive one.

Perhaps the next step in our cultural evolution will be to design a suitably submissive, humble and obedient robot who does not impinge on our sense of humanity too much, too quickly.

So, making the most of automation will require sensitive design to optimise the interaction between robots and your human workforce, as well as excellent internal communication, ensuring that you take your workforce on this journey with you.

What should we do now?

Don't worry too much about the future path of technology. Instead, focus on preparing your workforce with the right skills and attitude to cope with whatever future comes our way. Organisations who experiment and iterate pragmatically with technology will be most likely to reap the rewards that new technology can offer.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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