Business & finance professor, digital lawyer, restaurant owner, board member & traveler.
We need to get smarter about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robotics and blockchain.
What triggered this thought was a visit to an industrial factory last week.
We all know that something is happening. And everyone seems to agree that our future will be automated. But, we tend to believe that it will only — or mainly — affect repetitive “manual labor”.
Automation of “knowledge work” is not on many people’s agenda.
But, is this correct?
Or, is it a naïve view that will be detrimental to business and society?
The factory visit made me think about these issues and what “knowledge workers” — executives, managers, advertisers, lawyers, accountants, etc. — need to do to remain relevant in the coming new world.
The visit was an eye-opening experience. I will not go into details, but the factory belongs to a well-known global brand that has a strong market position.
In 2005, the factory employed 2,700 people, mainly working on the production line. Today, that number is a little over 800.
But the dramatic reduction in the number of employees was not the only difference from 12 years ago. The type of work has also completely changed.
Manual labor doesn’t really exist anymore. These activities have been replaced by robots and machines. Most of the workers are now system operators, necessary to control and monitor the automated production processes.
As it was explained to me, there were three reasons for this change:
Automation was necessary to stay ahead of the competition. Machines are simply able to do the work better, faster and more efficiently. It also enabled the company to focus on innovative applications of the “older technologies”.
It was basically a “choice” between automation or oblivion.
Discussing this experience with other colleagues on the visit, their first reaction was a little surprising: “Automation is limited to ‘blue collar’ jobs in specific sectors”.
When pushed, everybody seemed to accept that “knowledge work”, such as the finance, legal and marketing industries, will also be affected by automation. But, this will mainly be limited to the application of automated tools for very specific tasks.
For instance, artificial intelligence will automate routine activities. Knowledge workers will still be needed to work on specialized, high value activities.
This sounds wonderful, but I think it is a complacent view.
I can imagine the production-line workers making a similar argument in the past. They often denied the future and when it arrived, they weren’t prepared.
A better approach might be to observe and learn from the factory example, and adapt the following five lessons in order for knowledge workers to remain relevant in the coming new world of artificial intelligence.
Here are the lessons that I distilled from my visit to the factory:
On one point, my colleagues are right: artificial intelligence will take over and automate standardized “knowledge work”.
In fact, many knowledge workers are already doing standardized work, such as reviewing contracts, conducting mortgage servicing operations and dealing with compliance issues. These can easily be (and are already being) automated.
What is worrisome, however, is that “junior” knowledge workers are usually “trained” by doing precisely this kind of routine activity. Automation will thus have a significant impact.
Much of what currently passes for “training” will soon become irrelevant.
This issue might be partially solved by training knowledge workers how to become “operators” of the artificial intelligence tools and understand artificial intelligence and machine learning.
But, this would mean that recruiters — HR — would need to look for a very different skill-set.
Big Data and predictive analytics are going to play a crucial role in the activities of knowledge workers. It will spark a revolution in how research is conducted, customers are identified, products are advertised, conflicts are solved, etc.
This change will undoubtedly have an impact on “employability”.
We will need more “data-savvy” professionals.
Some innovations will replace and disrupt traditional “knowledge work” completely. Think blockchain technology and smart contracts.
If you believe (like I do) that any industry that is characterized by bureaucracy and prone to human error, fraud and hacking will be impacted by blockchain technology and smart contracts, it is obvious that knowledge workers have to get a much better understanding of these innovations.
The visit to the factory taught me that there is no room for complacency.
In the digital age, every aspect of work is potentially subject to disruption. And this disruption will be constant and relentless.
The conclusion? We have to put lifelong learning on the agenda.
In order to compensate for the loss of standardized work, knowledge workers will have to find and explore niche or new areas.
Again, this will require a better understanding of new technologies.
For instance, social media and drones will provide new opportunities in marketing and business. Platform companies need very specific legal advice. Cyber security and privacy have to be understood with new technologies in mind.
In all of these examples, a premium will be on finding creative solutions. The application of past experience or established templates will be much less relevant.
Since the digital age is changing the way we work (both white collar and blue collar), it is necessary to prepare for the “automation revolution”.
The days of a settled and predictable career path and life-time employment are over. We have to constantly learn and position ourselves in a fast-changing market.
This can only be done through personal “branding” and “storytelling”.
I am not worried about a future in which AI and other emerging technologies are at the center of our lives.
Our ability to develop and then adapt to new technology is remarkable.
Within one generation, everyone has developed a “sixth sense” of being hooked to the screens of their smart phones without bumping into things or other people.
Most such changes seem to happen gradually and without us even noticing.
But, we need to do more to prepare ourselves and the next generation for the future. Particularly, training and education must change.
Besides technology, we have to teach “soft” skills that help navigate an automated world of “intelligent machines” and add value to personal branding. This became again clear from last week’s visit.
And this does worry me. Whenever I discuss this with my colleagues, I am often met with scepticism and resistance.
Reforming traditional models of education and training will be difficult, but I will nevertheless embrace the “five lessons” and incorporate them into my teaching.
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