What will we do when White Collar Automation takes our jobs?

While I’m in a bit of a groove about the future of the workplace, I may as well talk about how there may not be a future for the workplace.

Automation destroyed the working class

The Industrial Revolution was so long ago now that it qualifies as history. The replacement of skilled labour with machines wiped out a whole class of skilled workers, but simultaneously expanded opportunities for unskilled workers to such an extent that overall standards of living rose and most people saw this as a Good Thing(tm). However since the seventies, robotics and computing started to strip humans from the factory to the point that now the modern factory floor workforce is only a tiny proportion of what it used to be. Similar effects can be found in farming, where vast farms are now run by just a handful of people.

Any repetitive physical task can be completed by a robot – and nobody has questioned this too hard. Factory conditions are harsh and most people don’t want to perform the exact same task hundreds of times a day due to the physical and psychic toll that can take.

However a clear upshot of this is that unskilled labour has little place in a modern economy. You could perhaps be a driver (a career with probably less that 20 years left before that becomes automated) – work in retail (currently being seriously eroded by ecommerce) – construction (safe for now) – but the options are limited and shrinking. If a job doesn’t require physical presence (e.g. Bricklayer) or face-to-face interaction (most sales) then it is potentially at risk.

A debate I’ve been having recently with a friend thinks that office workers are more immune…  but I think she’s being rather optimistic.

Analytics will destroy the middle class

Famed economist John Maynard Keynes once predicted widespread unemployment “due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour” – i.e. we will make the economy so efficient that we don’t need all available working people to run it any more.

Now this future has been long foreseen by Science Fiction writers and falls across a wide spectrum of possibilities. There’s the wildly optimistic future presented by the late Iain M. Banks of “The Culture” where effectively machines take care of humanity in a benign manner and give them a life of luxury and freedom. Then there is the darker end, such as UK comic 2000AD‘s character Judge Dredd‘s dystopian Mega Cities where wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few and 99% of the population is unemployed and lives off far from generous state handouts and life for most people is pretty dismal.

According to a study by Oxford University nearly 47% of US jobs are at high risk of being replaced by automation within the next 20 years. So this may be a reality we need to work out sooner rather than later. If your job involves decision making and it has routine repeatable elements to it then it is at risk of a pattern detecting engine being applied to it and that decision making process delegated to a machine. This could be as simple as approving a loan – something that is largely automated anyway – or as complex as diagnosing cancer.

Now many people may resist this and argue that a machine could never replicate the subtlety of human thinking. To some extent that is true, but the quality of human decision making is poor and it is arguable that handing over things such as medical diagnoses to systems that can absorb a volume of data far beyond our poor human brains capacity – and assess it rationally and fairly – may well improve the decisions that do get made.

So, perhaps it is time hail our new AI overlords, and let us pray they are kind to their creators…

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Why we should all adopt a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE)

In my last post I looked at how the world of work is changing as Social Enterprise tools affect how employees interact in the workplace. Another thing that is changing – albeit far more slowly – is how we are measured at work.

Are we being paid for work, or hours?

A concept which makes a lot of sense – but struggles to gain traction – is the Results Only Work Environment, or ROWE – created by Cali Ressler & Jody Thompson. The core idea is that employees cease to be rewarded by the hours they work, but instead by results. A simple example of this is the salesperson – if their function is to generate $1 million in sales per month, what matter is it to the company that employs them if they take forty hours a week or four to accomplish that goal? If on the first Monday of the month they hit their target what matter is it to the company if they put their feet up again until next month? However many companies would struggle with this idea and wonder where their salesperson is. Though they would have less qualms if the same salesperson was putting in eighty hours a week each month to achieve the same and regard that as dedication, so accusations of double standards being applied may be considered.

Go read the CultureRx blog for some great stories on ROWE, or read their book:

Are the hours you are paid for productive?

Couple this with when people are effective. Picked up from my read of Drive by Dan Pink, there was a quote from Scott Adams, Dilbert author that said (roughly)

My most productive hours are 5am to 9am. If I worked in a regular office, I’d spend my most productive hours showering, having breakfast and in traffic.

That resonates with me as I’ve learned when I do have times in the day when I am clearly more focused and others when I am merely treading water. Some of those times coincide with normal office hours, but others don’t. Here’s a pro tip for working with the BI Monkey – if you want the best of me, my brain seems to work full blast 8am-11am.

The simple reality is that bucketing everyone 9-5 and expecting uniform productivity across those hours isn’t going to deliver results, just hours work. I’m sure we all know people who declare themselves night owls or early birds – they have a self awareness of when they are more functional, and perhaps that deserves a little more respect from employers.

Don’t believe me? Good – always demand evidence! And here it is:

Why haven’t we all gone ROWE then?

The answer is probably rooted in a number of things, including the fact that management is still living in Motivation 2.0 land, where carrots and sticks are king. There are some structural complications though – much labour law is rooted in hours worked, employment contracts generally say you must be here between a and b o’clock (not that you have to deliver anything specific in that time, mind you). As a consultant there’s an expectation that you are simply there –  adding value or not (but I’ll handle presenteeism in a future post). Some jobs do require a presence (e.g. retail) but many do not (e.g. admin).

However as a mindset it’s easy to start thinking like this. How you choose to apply it in your day job is a matter for how revolutionary you feel!

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Introducing The Social Enterprise

Some of you may be aware that the BI Monkey has recently changed employers and with that has come a change in focus. My bread and butter remains BI and Analytics, but now I’m concerned with how that factors into the Social Enterprise.

What is the Social Enterprise?

Apart from being one of the latest buzzwords in IT, it’s the reflection in corporate technology of how Social Media has exploded in our private lives. I’m old enough to have watched communication evolve from the phone call and written letter, through to mobiles and email, to IM and forums and ultimately to social media. I’m sure the journey of changing how we communicate is far from over but social media such as FaceBook, Google+ and Tumblr currently are where we are at.

The corporate behemoth is as ever a bit slower to react than the nimble entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, but it is catching up. There are of course different needs – more channels of communication need to be managed, document tracking is a key activity, BI and Analytics are part of the process and the type of information shared is very different (far less cat videos for a start – there’s 16M according to this search of YouTube).

I’m going to put my Microsoft hat on for a minute. The tools that enable this are SharePoint, Lync and of course SQL Server BI. The lines between these tools are getting blurrier and blurrier all the time, with cross platform integration making switching between them increasingly seamless. This means you can find a PowerView report embedded in a SharePoint team site, and through presence jump straight to Lync and call the author to discuss.

Why does the Enterprise want to get Social?

Let’s not be naive – the Enterprise wants to do this because it improves the bottom line. There are a fistful of reasons how it does this and their impact is sometimes subjective, sometimes objective. I’ll pull out some key ones below:

  • Innovation – sharing of knowledge and ideas
  • Productivity – less time looking for information and expertise
  • Mobility – being able to engage with employees in the field
  • Cost – the ability to enable remote working allows for reduced office space

Aside from the cost component, the majority of benefit comes from being able to connect people and teams when those people aren’t sat next to each other. In a large organisation it’s very easy to become a collection of departments with minimal cross-functional activity, and collaboration tools act as a countermeasure to that.

How does a Social Enterprise benefit you?

There is an upside for this to employees as well. Much of it is crossover from the benefits above in terms of simply being able to do your job better:

  • Flexibility – freedom from shared drives and easy communications makes working from home simpler and more effective
  • Productivity – finding information and experts who can add context to it is much easier
  • Engagement – connecting with your employer and fellow employees is much easier

Having worked previously in an organisation that tried very hard to get social right, I can honestly say that as an employee, it paid off. Finding help and support, being able to give back, breaking information out of silos – it all worked and made my life as an employee much simpler, and enabled me to connect with people I may never have been able to before those tools were in place.

Are you ready to get social?

If you are keen to find out more, and want to improve how employees communicate and collaborate, here’s some good starter articles:

Enjoy exploring an area which is going to change the way all off us work!



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