The continuous technological changes coming to all industries is often referred to as the future of work and no corporation is safe from this upheaval. In order to help companies become prepared for what will undoubtedly be an exciting yet disruptive future, TMC (where I am CEO) has developed the world’s only Future of Work Exposition.
To give you a sense of where things are going – we’ve posted past interviews with conference co-chair Jon Arnold. These consisted of near-term AI and ML expectations as well as where the future of work could lead us.
To finish off this series, we just interviewed Jon again about how the future of work will change everything, and we mean everything.
We hope you enjoy this post and further make plans immediately to come to the Future of Work Expo Jan 30-Feb 1st, 2019 in Florida.
There has been a lot of discussion around AI and jobs. Do you think it will be a net job creator?
This is certainly one of the most important questions about AI, right up there with how it will impact or even transform our notions of privacy. At some point, I’m sure concessions around privacy will come if that helps AI become a net job creator, but the two don’t have to be connected. Regardless, it’s too early to say if there will be net gains. Just as there’s no doubt it will make some jobs obsolete, there’s also no doubt that new classes of employment will emerge as AI starts having a tangible impact on the economy.
At face value, low-skill, repetitive task types of jobs will become AI-driven, so this will hit the lower end of the job market. Going the other way, knowledge workers will benefit from new jobs that make AI go, and from that, another layer will form for the digerati who increasingly drive the economy. If history is our guide – and it is for me – there will likely be more losses than gains on the job front, but the future is very difficult to predict with technology, especially something like AI, where the impact will take many years to register.
We have smart homes and smart buildings – will the smart office be next?
Homes and buildings are definitely getting smarter, and eventually, we’ll get smarter cities. That’s more of an IoT story, and needs to be addressed another time. However, both are very much related to smart offices. First off, offices will get smarter simply because outside the home, this is where we spend most of our time. So long as the “time is money” maxim holds, businesses will be under constant pressure to be more productive, and that’s where the technologies to make offices smarter come into play. Basically, when friction is removed from workflows and business processes, people work more efficiently, and more effectively.
Smart homes are relevant here because our expectations around technology tend to be driven by our consumer experiences, and increasingly, this is carrying over into the workplace. A timely example would be how quickly Amazon Echo or Google Home have been adopted, along with the likes of Siri on our Apple devices. Alexa for Business is the first wave of pushing that experience into the workplace, and there’s much more to come. Technology is now a driving force for how work spaces are being designed, with a good example being huddle rooms. These spaces are purpose-built to make small-scale ad hoc meetings easy to manage, along with a great user experience to produce better collaboration outcomes.
What are some of the best opportunities for workers to take advantage of in the Future of Work (FoW)?
A major opportunity would be extending and improving the product promise of all collaboration vendors. Namely, this would be the ability to work equally well from any location, using any device, at any time, and across any network. This has always been harder to do than it looks, but the capabilities keep getting better, especially as these offerings become cloud-based and mobile-centric. They didn’t start out this way, but that’s where the market is going, and they’re trying to get there as fast as they can.
On another level, there is great opportunity ahead for workers to leverage AI. We are still early stage here, but the earlier reference to Alexa for Business means that each worker could have their own personal digital assistant. In time, this will be like a virtual secretary who will manage your calendar, answer emails, prioritize messages, schedule meetings, provide timely reminders, etc. Things get more interesting with speech technology where meetings can be transcribed, or written information can be converted to audio files, or communication in other languages can be translated in real time.
What training should they focus on to be ready?
This is tricky territory since training can be self-driven on the go, or it can be provided from others in a structured environment. Ideally, businesses should provide formal training so workers can all have the core skills needed for using these emerging technologies. For a variety of reasons, however, that’s not the norm, so workers are often on their own, and digital natives will likely have an advantage over older digital immigrants.
That aside, the bigger question is around what type of training is most needed. In terms of keeping current with technology, this has been an ongoing challenge ever since the PC era started in the 1980s. There’s very little formal training involved with technology, and workers tend to learn as they go – and I don’t think that’s going to change for FoW. To truly be “ready” for this future, workers really should have some training on the potential impact of AI and what digital transformation means for the workplace. This would address topics like protecting their privacy and identity, best practices to keep their data secure, how they can upgrade their skills for job security, as well as utilizing AI to enrich their jobs – rather than replace them.
What about productivity, will companies see a massive boost thanks to AI and the FoW?
That’s certainly the hope, but getting a “massive” boost may be setting the bar too high. This is part of the silver bullet mentality around AI, and we really need to be careful here. The hype leads us to believe AI is the only way we’ll be able to manage all the technology that’s overwhelming our lives. In other words, humans aren’t very good at this, so all we need is better, smarter technology to help use the technology we have in a more effective manner.
There’s a fair bit of blind faith driving this expectation, and as our dependency on technology grows, the more powerful the allure of AI becomes. The potential is there for AI to become a major force around FoW, but it’s no different than other new technology wave. Diffusion into the mainstream takes years, if not decades, so it will take time to gauge the impact on productivity. VoIP has been with us over 20 years, yet the installed base of legacy telephony in businesses remains around 50%.
I certainly wouldn’t be making AI investments based on seeing major productivity gains. These improvements are much more likely to be incremental, so the net effect will still be positive. To be fair, one must also consider the unintended consequences of AI on productivity, and while we don’t yet know what those will be, there will no doubt be some. While some AI applications may show big gains, others will be less clear, especially when there are other technologies involved that may not play well with AI. Decision-makers are better off taking a piecemeal approach where AI is initially used for specific scenarios such as speech-to-text, where the results will improve over time. Success here will warrant new applications, and hopefully these will add up to productivity gains that make AI worthwhile.
Are there FoW pitfalls which should cause concern?
Like anything else futuristic, we don’t really know, but there are plenty of concerns, and we’ll cover those during our FoW sessions. The starting point of course, would be that the related technologies – like AI – can truly add utility and new value to the workplace. As mentioned above, the hype around AI is creating great expectations, and it’s only very recently that applications like speech recognition have become good enough for serious consideration to improve productivity. Just look at the tremendous promise around autonomous vehicles – who wouldn’t want that? Great strides have been made, but clearly the technology is far from perfect, and it may never become good enough to be used the way it’s being positioned. The margin for error with AI is very thin, so the performance of the technology itself is a very real pitfall to consider.
Another one, naturally, is the impact on jobs, and whether AI will be viewed as a threat or an opportunity. Businesses are inclined to invest in technologies that reduce costs, but the human cost could be a major pitfall. Workers will have little inclination to adopt technology that will render them obsolete, so there’s much more at stake than just cost savings. Third would be the Big Brother implications for monitoring workers in ways that cross boundaries for privacy and performance evaluation. If FoW turns the workplace into an environment of constant surveillance rather than one of open engagement, workers will be doing less sharing and collaborating, not more.
What industries are going to adopt early? Late?
Digital transformation will impact each sector or vertical market differently. Broadly speaking, the early adopters will be in growth sectors where change is constant and there are lots of knowledge workers. Good examples would be in tech, and businesses like software, cloud services, e-commerce, analytics, etc. Another would be sectors that are being disrupted by digital transformation in a big way, such as healthcare, financial services and logistics. Going the other way, slower growing and more mature sectors will lag, but they know change is coming. This would include public sector, education, agriculture, transportation and retail.
To be fair, though, in every sector, there will be pockets of early adopters, simply because a particular workplace environment demands it. Take manufacturing, for example. Knowledge workers in roles such as R&D, marketing or supply chain management will likely be early adopters for FoW technologies like AI. On the shop floor, there will be less need for these tools to do things like collaborate, but they’ll be using different FoW technologies to drive things like automation and quality control. In other words, it’s complicated – every industry represents a distinct FoW opportunity, and the winners will be those who figure out the right mix of applications, along with the pace at which these new technologies can be adopted.
What is the one best way companies can become ready for the FoW?
Not everything can or should be filtered through the lens of technology, but to prepare for what’s coming, companies really need to understand the success factors for a digital world. Processes and business models built on analog methods will not be competitive going forward, so executives need to closely examine how things are being done from top to bottom, and then do a reality check – perhaps with some outside help – to gauge how well equipped the organization really is for change. The starting point really is about embracing change and recognizing your constraints – and from there you’ll be ready to move on this journey to FoW.
Change is hard, and it will be tempting to ride the status quo for as a long as possible. Casualties like Blockbuster, newspapers or Tower Records show this isn’t a winning strategy, and just as the needs of your customers are changing, so must your workplace to keep pace. The change we’re talking about at FoW isn’t about making patchwork fixes here and there, and it would be a mistake to think the future isn’t here yet, so better instead to leave the risk to others to adopt first and then you be a fast follower. To make FoW a driver for business success, you need to view it as a journey where change is ongoing. Thinking along those lines means the time is now, so the sooner you can assess your overall readiness for FoW, the sooner you can get there and ensure that someone ahead of you doesn’t take your business.