By Yazad Dalal, Head of HCM Strategy, EMEA at Oracle
We read a lot about how AI, machine learning, robots and automation in general are changing the workplace – and how many people seem to be afraid of what that change represents.
As someone who works for a company whose technology is helping to enable this change, I think about this a lot. The fear, to me, is misplaced, in part because people don’t stop to consider three important things about work and technology.
1. Change is Inevitable
Technology-driven change in the workplace is inevitable. The workplace of today is remarkably different from even the recent past and the pace of change is accelerating with zero pauses.
Most of what we think of as blue-collar jobs only came into existence about 200 years ago, as technology made factories possible and have evolved ever since. The majority of white-collar jobs today didn’t exist just 100 years ago. Back then, there was only a thin layer of office workers on top of a cadre of support staff and blue-collar workers. Today, we work in the knowledge economy: the social media expert sitting next to you couldn’t have been there even 20 years ago.
There will always be technology-driven change in the workplace, and it will be cyclical change as technologies develop and mature. Sometimes that change takes generations; other times, like now, change occurs during a single career.
I come from a line of steel mill workers — they did that job until they retired. My father worked at IBM for more than 30 years – and he’s had four jobs since. What he was working on last year was nothing like what he worked on when he started his career. So already my father had to engage in continuous learning, while my grandfather had to master just one career. That’s even more important for people of my generation and those coming into the workplace today.
2. Machines Work Better With People in Control
I share the view of Nick Thompson, the Editor-in-chief of Wired, that human intelligence and ability is at its maximum when it is combined with machines.
When IBM’s Deep Blue first beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov, it made headlines and was the subject of a documentary. But as author Clive Thompson noted in his book “Smarter Than You Think,” when machines and humans worked together, even two mid-level players were able to beat a computer playing alone. The key was that the humans had learned how to use their computer as a highly effective tool for the task.
The same thing applies to the workplace. Email may have eliminated the need for pools of secretaries, stenographers, typists and mailroom clerks, but it is only a tool. It isn’t more powerful than its user and it does nothing alone. So as we put more automation into the workplace, rather than fear that it will replace what we do now, we should think about how to acquire the skills to use these new tools. That will make us even more valuable in the future.
In fact, we need a paradigm shift in how we even talk about these changes. People’s fear happens when they look at technology-driven change and say, “I’m going to lose my job.” Instead, we should be talking about how that job has become obsolete, and develop new skills that work smarter, not harder, using the technology around us. We need to be looking ahead constantly, thinking about what we are going to do next and the skills we need for the next thing we do.
3. Adaptation is Everywhere
Some worry that there are people who are either culturally or generationally unable to understand and adapt to working with new technology. Well, in my family, the person most devoted to her smartphone is my mother. The fastest adoption of the latest technology is happening in developing countries.
I spend a lot of time working in South Asia, watching smaller companies just leapfrog technology. They can move fast, with culturally less entrenched resistance to overcome, and are eager to adapt. I remember back fondly to a day in 2017 when T-Mobile announced that it would roll out 5G mobile technology in the US over the next three years. In Sri Lanka, their roll out plan stated it would be the hunger to adapt, adopt and learn creates a lower tolerance for delay
With the evolution of technology, we are enabling all economies to develop and grow. Connecting the world to the right people around the globe has become so much easier, enabled by data and technology, but empowered and instructed by people.
So, as we look backward, we’ve seen this pattern over and over: as automation changes some jobs, others are created. The first Industrial Revolution changed the work and skills our predecessors needed from handicraft to working alongside machine manufacturing. The Digital Revolution that my father worked through in the 70s, enabled him to move from a career in steel to a white-collar job in IBM.
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