Over the past few years my work has been focused on helping people in organizations to re-think how they work, communicate and engage in a digital workplace. Despite the proliferation of collaboration, communication and social network tools and technologies within companies, people still work with pre-digital mindsets and behaviors. It takes time, conscious effort and some re-skilling to move people into fully inhabiting the digital workplace. As automation with artificial intelligence capabilities gains momentum, how will these elements affect what we think of as the digital workplace?
So it was with great interest that I attended a conversation around the growing impact of artificial intelligence in the world of knowledge work in a talk given in March 2017 by Euan Semple for students and alumni of the Information and Knowledge Strategy Master’s program at Columbia University where I am adjunct faculty in the program.
As Euan noted, our lived experience is increasingly digitized. We’re challenged as individuals to catch up with the pace of technological change and advancements.
Organizations struggle to respond institutionally to the unpredictability of technological abundance and change - the power in our pockets. Euan noted that we perhaps also over-estimate the millennial ability with technology. While adept at the mechanics of interactivity, it’s not always a sure bet that they make the most productive use of the computing in those pockets. But they surely have different expectations about technology use in organizations - that it’s always available, in any context, in any location. Companies and organizations are eager that their workforce become more flexible, independently interactive, pro-active at knowledge sharing and masterful at collaborating.
Despite advancements in technology, organizations still operate and structure themselves along very Tayloristic models according to Euan. They’ve been organized to minimize risk and unpredictability and maximize efficiency of repeatable processes. As he noted, people are recruited and rewarded for a set of characteristics that can support Taylorism. But that’s not the workplace that we’re transitioning to in an age of digital disruption and certainly not the level of disruption and opportunity afforded by the integration of artificial intelligence into the structure of work.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) will impact all sorts of work processes - and not just manufacturing and customer service. Routine, predictable processes and knowledge work are ripe for AI - in the legal, medical, insurance and financial services sectors, for instance. What happens to the legions of “white collar” workers over the next 5, 10, 15 years - people whose careers have been built on reliably performing this kind of work in Tayloristically structured organizations? I’ve recently read a late 2015 McKinsey Institute report Four fundamentals of workplace automation which noted that while entire jobs may not be replaced, many aspects of certain kinds of functions will be. In McKinsey’s estimation “45 percent of the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies.” This would represent about $2 trillion in annual wages in the U.S.
staying ahead of robots
So how do we “stay ahead of the robots” as Euan asks? How do we enhance the things we’re good at to stay relevant, engaged and employed?
How we even think about work may change - what will constitute work when certain aspects of it are automated? As Semple notes, historically we have thought of work in somewhat puritanical terms - something that might be demanding, unpleasant, a duty, not a joy.
the manager and the managed
People who inhabit managerial roles may become a thing of the past, as our increasingly automated and digital way of working obviates managers as purveyors of information or coordinators in chief. For Euan, there is a fundamental shift - management styles, assumptions, morays and procedures are based on the model of managing conscripts.
He noted that he had been on a panel where discussants had reflected that given how bad people’s experience of management has been they might well prefer to have an algorithmic driven interface with the management of their organization as long as it was transparent and clear how it was presenting decisions.
What constitutes management in an AI driven world? Given the networked nature of our world, individuals have the capability and can master skills to work within various networks. They can access the information and data that they need. Networks of autonomous thoughtful, tolerant individuals can coalesce to work productively together as freelancers or networks of freelancers.
Work performance in the Tayloristic model is bounded by consistency, adherence to protocol or procedures. In a different world of work, we may discover whole new ways of adding value to one another. As Euan said "If robots are doing all the routine stuff, organizations will need to attract people who are smart enough to willingly step up and make a difference...and manage the robots.” Organizations say they want transformation, but in actuality they want to tinker, not transform.
the broader society and whither the internet
Organizations and companies and the people in them are challenged, as are our civic institutions. The pace of change and new complexities are outstripping institutional capacity for rational adaptation - leading to frustration and distrust among the populous. Our sense of media being a reliable "fourth estate" has been compromised by propagandist web and TV properties, a proliferation of manufactured, bot-led conversations on social media so we have an increasing sense we live in a ‘post-truth’ society. For Euan, the web is a place of too much marketing, packaged commercial material and so a sense of the promise of the internet is not fulfilled.
As Euan Semple reflected, in the face of the unpredictability in the workplace and sense of the untrustworthiness of the media, people are using their own networks to create meaning and civic cohesion.
The internet is only thirty years old, the web only twenty years on. What can we imagine it will be at fifty? Euan implied that it will need our continued, active, direct engagement in the spirit of David Weinberger - writing ourselves into existence.