12 Feb 2019

I have said previously that we may see more change in the world of work in the next five years, than we have seen in the previous 20 years.

A rather bold prediction perhaps, particularly when you consider just how different things were two decades ago. This was a time when email was still establishing itself as a primary means of business communication – and logging on to work from home was pretty much unheard of. Even if you had your own Internet access, you needed to crank up the dial-up modem (which was slow, temperamental and put your landline telephone out of action). Mobile telephones were chunky and expensive. If you had any kind of electronic work device, it was more likely to be a pager. You probably still relied on your trusty Filofax and Rolodex.

Fast forward 10 years, to circa 2009. Despite the prevalence of email, many people still liked to send faxes and hard copy letters (or maybe that was just lawyers!). However, Blackberry devices and similar handsets were starting to change significantly the way people worked, allowing them to send emails when away from their desks (which sometimes brought its own problems). Instant messenger platforms were also beginning to find a place in modern business.

Today, we communicate on the move more than ever before. For many of us, much of the activity we do in the workplace can be done just as effectively elsewhere. We live and work in a flexible, on-demand society, using apps to access platform-based, tech-enabled services. Video-conferencing facilities provide alternatives to getting everyone into a room for meetings. I could go on. I suspect most people in 1999 would not have foreseen much of this. And, as the pace of technological advancement appears to be accelerating, who is to say that the current way of doing things won’t be obsolete in five years’ time?

Tech is likely to revolutionise the workplace in ways we are currently unable to predict. I have spoken to tech recruiters who tell me that new types of role are popping up that would not have existed even a year ago.

So how do we go about translating this into a beneficial shift within individual organisations?

Artificial intelligence

First, all organisations might usefully consider what role AI (or indeed, a more simple form of automation) could play in how they do things in the future.   The answer may well be “none at all” – which is fine. It is not suitable for all types of work and it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to use tech for the sake of it. A speaker at one of our Zebra Project events put it very succinctly when she said that you can’t assume that you can take a task and simply “AI it”.

But there may well be things you currently do, that machines might be able to perform much better – with greater speed, efficiency and accuracy. If used in the right way, technology can be overwhelmingly positive in augmenting what your workforce does.

Supermarkets are a great example of how this is done well. Many shoppers love the fact that they can now walk round their local store, zapping barcodes and using the self-service checkouts with minimal human interaction.   It is certainly true that automated tills do not have the customer-handling skills of trained and experienced checkout staff. But they do remove the functional, repetitive task from those employees and allow them to focus on the things that humans are best at – customer service.

If we translate that into other types of organisation, it is worth considering what tasks employees currently perform that are process-driven, repetitive or prone to human error. Technology works best at things that are dull or physically demanding. Machines do not get tired, sick, distracted or have “off days”.

It may not require a radical overhaul of your current systems and processes. Start small, by finding something straightforward and rules-based, perhaps a task that is not particularly relished by the people who currently have to do it. Is there a tech solution in the market that can help you do that work more efficiently? Perhaps test it out in a discrete part of your organisation, by running a pilot programme.

The key is to get humans and machines working together as part of a blended workforce, pooling their collective capabilities with each focusing on what they are good at. This is one of the headline findings of Future Fundamentals, the recent report published by Taylor Vinters reflecting on the first 12 months of our Zebra Project.

Machines are great at drudgery. They are not so good at dealing with people. So if you can use technology to free up your people to improve/personalise customer interactions, it makes sense to consider it.

Big data and ethical decision-making

One of the most compelling applications for AI is in processing and interpreting the vast amounts of data that is now swirling around.

There is considerable untapped potential for businesses in analysing commercial and market data. Algorithms can churn through masses of information very quickly, sorting the useful from the extraneous, providing insight that would be utterly disproportionate for even an army of human analysts to attempt. Technology can be used to spot opportunities or report on trends that we would never otherwise know were there.

However, the rise of “big data” clearly needs to be managed very responsibly. We have seen a number of high profile data breaches in recent years, with potentially catastrophic financial and reputational consequences for those embroiled in them. The law has responded robustly to growing concerns about the security of individuals’ personal data (and the scope for its misuse), through the recent introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation. Quite rightly, if an organisation holds information relating to a person, he or she should be entitled to know what, why and how it is being used.

Alongside this, there are broader issues around ensuring that automated decision-making is carried out in an ethical way. Last year, I spoke to a citizens’ jury run by the RSA, which was tasked with considering the ethical implications of using AI. The conversations I had that day reinforced to me the importance of transparency and accountability when deploying technology. People care about how their data is used and worry that machines may make unexplained decisions which have a real impact on their day-to-day lives.

This has been reinforced by the conversations we have had as part of the Zebra Project, where “ethical innovation” was recognised as a priority leadership issue for organisations embracing new technologies.

Therefore, it is imperative to have a robust internal structure for handling, processing and retaining personal data. All businesses should have clear internal rules (applicable to workers and AI tools alike), combined with clear external communications to demonstrate compliance and engender public trust.

To conclude, it is clear that technology can have a transformational impact on organisations, regardless of sector or size. A genuine openness to innovation, within the context of clearly communicated boundaries, provides the best conditions for successfully incorporating technology into your future workforce strategy.

Next time: Location – Modern workspaces, remote working and international footprints

Read previous articles in the Future of Work series: