The Future of Work


The future is already here. Just ask those workers already affected by technological change.

Consider the 6,000 National Australia Bank workers who have been told they will be replaced by robots. Or the hundreds of truck drivers to be replaced by automation in Rio Tinto’s mines.

Or what about the story of Uber driver Muhammad Qureshi in Sydney? After working as a taxi driver for three decades, the Uber Artificial Intelligence system determined his performance was less than acceptable and terminated his contract.

Talking about the Future of Work implies it’s something we have to worry about down the track, over the horizon. Such forward thinking allows us to relax a little, to ponder what that future might look like, and how it will affect us.

The future tense has a sense of theatre about it. Looked at through a utopian lens it can be a romantic view of a time when our lives will be so much better.

Through a dystopian lens, however, the future could well be a dark and threatening place, Bladerunner-like in its implications – a future that sees humanity replaced by robots, supplanted by software, absolved of responsibility by algorithms.

Neither of these extremes is relevant. Not because they might not occur in the future, but because the future is already here.

Many people have already and unwittingly found themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide, facing major life changes. They’ve been made redundant by robots or replaced by autonomous vehicles or sacked from casual employment by opaque algorithms.

The future of work revolution started more than 20 years ago with the arrival of the Internet. It was then that the gig economy, and the dramatic shift towards casual work and sub-contracted labour began. The casualisation of the Australian workforce spiked in the early 1990s – not in the last decade, as some have said recently. Casual workers have  remained steady at around 20% of the labour force for the past 18 years.

The widespread adoption of the Internet was a catalyst for fundamental changes in business that saw greater flexibility in working.

I took advantage of those changes in 1994, when I started a consulting practice founded on the earliest Internet. For me, the new technology presented a breakthrough way to harness talented people who had left full-time professional work, particularly women with young children, in an effort to redeploy their skills in flexible, productive and personally fulfilling ways. The importance of purpose-through-work in bringing meaning to people’s lives cannot be underestimated.

Suddenly, technology, married to human talent, brought added purpose to the work lives of people who had experienced disruption in their careers. Some had planned this disruption to their working lives. Others, such as senior executives who had left full-time employment, had the change foisted on them.

In 1994, we had to show people how to set up a 28 kilobit modem at home, teach them about the Internet and train them in the then-new tools of email, researching through the web and working in a completely different manner.

The returns to all – the individual, the firm, the clients and the broader community – were worth the investment. But an investment was required on the part of the individual and the firm.

The required investment today is much greater and must be by more than just individuals and organisations – government, universities and the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector are all vital players.

A demonstration of an organisation leading this change, about which I have previously published articles, is the strategic position Rio Tinto has taken. While Rio has indeed moved workers out of traditional roles, the company has taken a leadership position in re-skilling, re-training and re-deploying its workforce.

In this, the role the VET sector is fundamental.

But at this very time – when training is so important – we are seeing declining apprenticeship and trainee completions.

This is more widespread than just the VET sector – McKinsey reports that public spending on labour-force training has fallen in Australia over the past 20 years, as it has done across the OECD.

Government, in setting policy, enterprises and individual workers must all play a role in this theatre of transition.

Yet one actor is missing from this stage of change – the unions. Unions should be as relevant today as they were following the first industrial revolution. I believe they could better play a constructive, proactive role in partnering enterprise and government to re-equip a new membership that has new needs to better meet the challenges they are facing.

Much of the current rhetoric fails to consider the massive change crashing through society.

McKinsey reports that 60% of occupations will be significantly affected by automation. Across more than half the workforce, a third of all work activities could be automated.

As Martin Ford says in his book, Rise of the Robots, “Humans have historically considered machines as tools that increase the productivity of workers. But now, the machines are becoming the workers.”

This challenges our most basic assumption about technology. The line between capability and capital is blurring. All workers will need the adaptive skills to be able to work alongside increasingly capable machines.

This is why we should be focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering, ARTS and Technology – STEAM, not just STEM – to help students think differently, challenge ideas, create, adapt and be resilient – skills that last a lifetime.

Google, an archetype of the STEM-only approach, found that 7 of the top 8 characteristics of its successful staff were soft skills. STEM expertise came last. Ahead of STEM were: the ability to listen, communicate, be empathetic, support others, think critically, solve problems and make connections.

Increasing numbers of women are excelling in STEM and the need for emotional intelligence — skills in which women typically also excel – is greater in an age of Artificial Intelligence.

An upside of rising Artificial Intelligence might be to finally address the gender-equity issue!

The Intelligent Enterprise finds the sweet spot that leverages the strengths of humans and computers to deliver superior outcomes.

It has a sophisticated understanding of both human decision-making (the “soft side”) and evolving technology-enabled capabilities (the “hard side”).

Of course, automation will also create occupations that do not exist today, just as technologies of the past have done.

Accencture captures the unique roles humans can play in 3 areas: Trainers, Explainers and Sustainers, with some creative job titles that may be illustrative of just how radical the new jobs will be….whoever considered being a “Machine Relations Manager”….other than your teenage son?

The strategic imperative is to move rapidly but in an informed manner, and there are some excellent Western Australian case studies to learn from.

Partnering Rio was South Metropolitan TAFE and in working with them I saw first-hand the open-mindedness of the South Metro board and executive to change old dynamics of a dated TAFE system through new strategies.

Woodside is the world leader in Artificial Intelligence and robotics in oil and gas. It took a problem-first approach to identify issues that could be addressed through advanced technology – not a technology-first approach. CEO Peter Coleman initiated cultural change through implementation of Artificial Intelligence and advanced robotics.

Another Perth-based company, Programmed, employs 20,000 people to provide staffing across multiple sectors. A large number of its employees are truck drivers, whose jobs will decline with the arrival of autonomous vehicles.

Commensurate with this is a rise in the demand for healthcare workers to support an ageing population.

Programmed’s strategic response has been to look across the entire business – to re-train the workforce in one area and re-deploy it in another, completely different, industry. CEO Chris Sutherland highlights the importance of having a job for people at the end of the re-training.

We can draw societal implications from this example – as a community we must be thinking about how we best re-deploy workers of all ages into new roles in new industries.

Silver Chain nursing created a world-first in partnering Microsoft to use augmented reality to connect its nurses directly with clinicians in hospitals and access detailed patient data.

The changing world of work with thinking machines is not without challenges and among those will be the ethical issues boards, executives and management will face. Consider the circumstance where Artificial Intelligence advises workers against entering a production plant due to the risk of an explosion. Management is under pressure to meet production targets. Workers lives may be at risk. Who does the executive listen to – the Artificial Intelligence or management?

Board packs and strategic-planning retreat packs in the near future may well include articles on ethics and moral dilemmas by philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, Phillipa Foot, Nick Bostrom et al.

In summary, I believe there are 4 things business leaders can do to better prepare for the future:

  1. Devote board, executive and management time to better understanding the new technologies and how they will change your workforce.
  2. Take a problem-first approach to identifying areas in which automation can complement the human work of today. This is not a Big-Bang approach – it is about developing a portfolio of pilot projects from which you, your people and your enterprise can learn.
  3. Partner with specialist providers to develop radically new capabilities in your people and your organisation.
  4. And, own the social imperative to begin changing today, and the moral obligation to consider the ethical issues arising.

Intelligent enterprises have not only identified the problem, they have taken ownership of the entire strategic opportunity.

The imperative today isn’t to just work. It is to find new roles that play to our humanity before the machines take them away.

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