People strategies in the automation age

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Bloor’s mutable business model is built on a constant, dynamic interchange of three strands – technology, business models and people. In this article, Bloor CEO Tim Connolly begins to share some thoughts on the implications for people strategies of ever-increasing automation and digital transformation.

Many jobs will be automated out of existence in the next ten to fifteen years. There is nothing new about this. It’s happened over the past fifteen years, and the fifteen years before that; it’s been happening ever since widespread industrialisation began in Britain in the eighteenth century.

However, in today’s world of automation and continuous digital transformation, the pace of change is of course increasing. The Institute for The Future’s prediction that 85% of the jobs being performed by 2030 don’t even exist today is, for many people, not difficult to believe. I have to admit I haven’t found a comparable statistic for how many people are working in jobs today that hadn’t even been thought of at the turn of the millennium, but it isn’t hard to think of what those jobs are – app developers, social media managers, chief digital officers, data scientists, podcast producers, endless cloud computing roles, sustainability consultants, user experience designers, Uber drivers, to name but a few.

Nobody can say with any certainty whether, overall, the demand for labour will drop relative to supply. It’s an enormously dynamic equation, not a zero sum game, and the only consistent view amongst business people and academics is that there won’t be a consistent picture. The answer for any particular company or individual is going to be determined by how they rise to the commercial and entrepreneurial opportunities and challenges that automation brings.

A couple of other things to bear in mind. One is that automation is not the only game in town. The United Nations, for example, has been putting out some pretty sobering warnings about the number of jobs that could disappear as a result of global warming over the next decade. Another possibility is that automation will actually not happen fast enough to maintain and improve living standards unless our societies and economies are not changing with it. The Economist recently explored the possible impact, over the same ten to twelve year period, of automation – machine learning, artificial intelligence and all – not doing enough to compensate for an ageing population and a shrinking workforce in countries such as the UK, who had failed to prepare properly.

One development we can be pretty confident about, though, because it is already happening, is that the relationships between companies and employees will continue to fundamentally change. Lifelong employment is dropping and will continue to do so. Career changes, portfolio working and the ‘gig economy’ are all current realities and are not going to go away. A combination of mergers & acquisitions, business failures, start-ups, new technologies, personal career choices, attitudes to work and other factors will continue to see to this.

In such an environment, the individual inevitably has to take more responsibility for their personal development and career management than ever before. That is a big challenge, not only for the individual but for employers. How do they attract and retain the talent they need in a world where most people will not expect to work for their employers for more than five to ten years? Or not to work exclusively for them? How will they provide the lifelong learning opportunities that are more important than ever in these days of continuous and rapid technological and social change, in the knowledge that much of what their staff learn will be put to good effect in other enterprises than their own? Tough questions to answer – but wrapped up with these challenges are some really exciting opportunities and possibilities for employers. Watch out for my next post for more about these.