Last year I read an article in The Economist magazine which speculated on the future of jobs, including which professions would be most likely to find themselves replaced by technology – it made for interesting reading at the time and its ideas resound today.
Technology has changed the workplace in an extraordinary way. It has allowed some jobs to be mobile that were previously desk-bound, and enabled many workers to do their jobs from almost any location at any time. Whenever there is any kind of a “work” revolution, there is a related and required shift in skill sets. As technology evolves and replaces traditional ways of doing work, it not only changes the very nature of the work, including tools, practices and processes, it also impacts the skills required to adapt to this paradigm shift.
Jobs that were created or enhanced by technology, such as telemarketers and contact center agents, will soon find themselves phased out as technology evolves. Telemarketing applications are already beginning to replace the physical person making outbound calls, and soon it may replace the contact center agent who answers inbound calls. In fact, studies now show that modern technology users prefer to “self-care” if given robust technology-based support, seeking human intervention only if those resources are inadequate to meet their needs.
So what is changing?
There is a lot of talk in the press about the “Millennium Trends” – also referred to as SMIC, an acronym for Social platforms, Mobile applications, Information (“Big Data”) and Cloud computing – which are transforming the way we define business, the way we do business and the way we interact with each other and deliver work. Embedded in these trends are the associated underlying enabling technologies which are bringing about major advances toward digitization. For example, the rate of change in terms of machine to machine (M2M) communications, mobile device penetration, and the evolution of broadband speeds in recent years has been extraordinary. Amongst the advances, a few technologies are having the most dramatic impact on the evolution of the workplace. These are cognitive systems, robotics and the “internet of things”, or connected machines.
Innovations in software development have brought us to the point where machines can do much a better job than humans for certain activities. Cognitive systems – the computing technology which focuses on how to emulate human capabilities, and uses both natural language processing and machine learning – go hand in hand with Information, or “Big Data”, and analytics; they are fundamentally interconnected and are here to stay.
The dynamics of doing business has dramatically changed in just a few years. We have moved from a situation where we focus on analysing past business performance and seek to correct mistakes using historical data, to one where we chart where the business is today based on real-time sales data, determine what opportunities will exist tomorrow by interpreting constantly updated market trends, and forecast the future based on analysing predictive patterns. Opportunities are now created on an on-going basis –even for just a few hours! This is the business model that companies like Airbnb and Uber follow, one of identifying and responding to immediate and short life-span opportunities. Companies like these thrive on optimizing the business moment thanks to their capacity to create businesses that are agile; they are able to evolve in an extremely fast manner. A well-known industry analyst has liken the ability of these businesses to evolve rapidly to the design of an F16 fighter jet; both are built to be deliberately “unstable”, allowing them to achieve extremely rapid manoeuvrability with minimum loss of energy.
Robotics is another area of remarkable advancement. Many routine, repeatable activities can be learned and performed well by machines today – think of the automated vacuum cleaner that guides itself around the floors of your home - and sophisticated robotics have long had a place on the factory floor production line. Robotics in the workplace is likely to become more pervasive, driving greater efficiencies and freeing workers to do more complex, interactive tasks.
As micro-robotics has ever more connected systems, connected machines - where all machines in a system can be connected to operate as an integrated whole- have potential applications and benefits that go well beyond the factory floor thanks to M2M developments and the Internet of Things (IoT). Orange is working with a Dutch company named Dacom which is using M2M technology to transform traditional farming into connected agriculture systems. Connected systems automate data gathering and analysis so that the farmer no longer needs to go out into the field to check whether it needs to be irrigated – they can do so via M2M connected sensors using an App on their smartphone. Instead of spending time on travel and manual and administrative tasks, farmers can use that time to check market data to make better business-related decisions.
Similarly, smart cities are examples of how these technologies can be put to work to create high-performing connected environments which learn and adapt to people’s life patterns - turning lights or power on and off at specific times or optimizing water flow, for example. All this improves quality of life, enhances sustainability, reduces waste and carbon footprint, and benefits overall economic parameters.
The evolution of the workforce
As in previous workplace revolutions, the skills required to deliver the same work or deliver new services must change and adapt to new technologies and new business models. With the advent of the Millennium Trends (SMIC) and their associated enabling technologies, the skills of IT professionals must evolve too. IT professionals have always been at the forefront with innovative skills, but with the advance of technologies such as cognitive systems, robotics, and connected machines (IoT), not only are the required IT skill sets changing more than ever and at a rapidly accelerating rate, such as social media skills and more, but there will also be skills required from outside the field of traditional IT, such as those of gaming experts who now develop new user interfaces.
At the top of the IT organization is the CIO and much has been written about their changing role, but today’s CIO needs to not only drive technological change within his or her own organization but must also fundamentally educate the entire organization about how technology can help move it towards entirely new business models. Today’s CIO needs to dramatically alter the ways in which they interact with people – there is a need for digitization right across the board, with peers, with employees, with customers, and with partners up and down the value chain.
Jobs of the future will require people to be technology-savvy, to engage with customers and partners in flexible and dynamic ways, and to be capable of quickly adapting as business becomes more nimble and optimizes for each new opportunity. Technologies such as cognitive systems, robotics and connected machines have made the workplace more dynamic than ever and will continue to do so. A new generation of IT-related skills are required to deliver the profound benefits that such technologies can bring.