The Future of Work Is People (and so is Soylent Green)

On January 25, 2017, in HRExaminer, by John Sumser

2017 01 25 hrexaminer future of work is people photo img cc0 via pexels photo 262272 lego computer robot man crop 544x309px.jpg

“It’s likely that you’ll agree that there is a consensus view. It’s something like this: People will become increasingly irrelevant as machines of various types and intelligences take away work that is currently performed by humans.” – John Sumser

Today (Jan 24, 2017), Googling “Future of Work” produces 47 Million Results.

It’s likely that you’ll agree that there is a consensus view. It’s something like this: People will become increasingly irrelevant as machines of various types and intelligences take away work that is currently performed by humans. The future of work is digital. The future of work is machines. The future of work is not human. The future of work is not work.

Isn’t that the gist of it? The future -> Work is History.

A few voices (like Josh Bersin) are making the argument that technology always creates jobs and never puts people out of work. While there’s something to that, it doesn’t really address the social, political and personal disruption caused by job elimination. “Yes, people will have to change,” they say, “but think of the lost drudgery.”

While the industrial era really did expand employment eventually, there was the pesky hundred years between the start of factories and the First World War. In the 19th Century, as agricultural jobs were eliminated by technology, people left their farms to move to the cities. To suggest that they all found better jobs following the elimination of their livelihoods (in drudgery, for sure) is pretty fanciful. The great improvements in productivity, quality of life and overall employment came after many, many years of back breaking, family destroying conditions.

Ultimately, the industrial era provided a generation or two of worker’s paradise. But, it was hell getting there and is likely to be hell getting out. It’s not a stretch to suggest that the current political rifts in many countries around the globe are the result of the inequities of technological change. Technological disruption of work, which is going to happen with increasing frequency, is never a neutral experience.

The promise of the elimination of drudgery loses sight of the human tendency to imbue even meaningless work with meaning. As automation finds its way into specific jobs, one of two things happens. Either the job is eliminated or (much more likely) the job evolves into something new. When a job morphs to include new technology and new responsibilities, it’s called a hybrid job.

Everywhere I travel, I meet receptionists (or, Directors of First Impressions) who are interleaving social media work into the natural cracks in the business of attending to visitors. Hybrid jobs, as they are called, are really a part of everyone’s work life today. A hybrid job is one that combines business and technology skills. When Marc Andreessen talks about software eating the world, part of what he is describing is the relentless conversion of business jobs into technical jobs.

Today, virtually every single bit of work is mediated, administered, supplemented or monitored by technology. In order to simply ‘do your job’, you must interact with a system. It’s easy to see how that could be understood as a platform for the mass replacement of workers. Since “doing the job” seems to be equated with “interfacing with the system”, it’s easy to imagine the machine just doing the whole thing. On first glance, hybrid jobs suggest a worker-less future.

And, right there is the logical fallacy, the reason that the wholesale replacement of workers by machine learning intellibots is not the Future of Work.

Today, most software used in businesses doesn’t actually do anything. I know that sounds odd. Contemporary business software is a management overlay. It tracks and monitors. It reports. It  provides documentation.

But people do the work. And the software is not the work. It is generally a control and documentation mechanism that is every bit as accurate as the data entered into it. Salesforce.com doesn’t sell. It documents and helps a sales team organize the sales workflow.

Contemporary enterprise software solves (and creates) administrative problems. The likelihood that it will evolve to become a human replacement is roughly nil. Workers may become better at their jobs but wholesale machine replacement is extremely unlikely.

As workers become better at their jobs, companies have two choices: do more better stuff or reduce costs. Employees also have two choices: get better at the job or get a different one.

Resources from the Future of Work Literature:



 
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