The Digital Workforce and the “New-style” Enterprise

Posted: 03/20/2017

Martin Ford: a Futurist on the Impact of Robotics and Cognizant on Business Operations

Every year, SSON invites global innovators to the stage to share their views on trends that are disrupting the way we do business. The idea is to inspire you to think outside the box – and maybe get to your own next "big idea".

Right now, one of the most significant trends is the rise of robotics across all elements of the enterprise, transforming the way business is done. The implications will impact enterprises beyond what many of us can comprehend today.

Martin Ford is a futurist and New York Times best-selling author perhaps best known for his book "Rise of the Robots". He is specifically interested in how artificial intelligence is allowing robots to take over complex jobs. The accelerating pace of new technologies is changing everything, he says. At Shared Services and Outsourcing Week 2017, Martin offered a pragmatic view of what the future of work, and your place in it, will look like. He also addressed a bigger question: Can accelerating technology disrupt our entire economic system to the point where a fundamental restructuring is required? And what should we do? 

SSON’s Barbara Hodge asks Martin Ford how we can prepare.

Q: While robotic manufacturing has been commonplace for a long time, we are now seeing robotic processing in the back-end of businesses, across support services. What lessons can we learn from robots’ impact on manufacturing that might apply to support services?

Automation has had an enormous impact on manufacturing, with huge increases in productivity as well as falling employment. A similar effect is now unfolding in clerical and white collar support areas, and there is every reason to believe the result will be just a dramatic. As with manufacturing, there is also the impact of globalization, with many roles initially being offshored, but in the long run it will be technology, especially in the form of AI and machine learning, that will have the greatest impact on both jobs and business models.

Q: If we assume that accelerating technology will disrupt our economy to the extent that we need to fundamentally restructure our businesses, what might this look like?

The conventional solution to technological disruption has always been education and retraining. That will continue to be viable for some workers, but eventually we could reach the point where technology moves so fast and becomes so capable that many workers will be disenfranchised.  At that point, we will have to consider more radial solutions, perhaps something like a guaranteed minimum income or universal basic income.  The idea is to find a way to adapt capitalism so it is sustainable, as technologies like robotics and AI advance to unprecedented levels. By guarantying everyone at least a minimal income, you provide people with basic economic security and also help to sustain the consumer demand that the market economy relies on.

Q: If we assume that technology is getting smarter and artificial intelligence will allow technology to take on many tasks that we traditionally thought could only be done by humans, where, conceivably, would you see the distinct value-add of human activity?

For the foreseeable future – meaning perhaps the next couple of decades – humans will add the most value in areas that require genuine creativity or where deep relationships with people are required. This might be in scientific research, technological invention, business strategy or the arts. Or it might be areas that require lots of caring of empathy as you would find in many health care or teaching roles.

Q: Can we assume that as certain jobs move from humans to technology, there will be a parallel and equal creation of new jobs? If not, how do we retain the employment balance (assuming there has been/is one)?

There will always be both job destruction and job creation as the result of advancing technology. Historically, the creation has generally outweighed the destruction. The question is whether machines that begin to think and to learn might change the dynamic. I think the risk of this is high, and that it is likely that job destruction will outweigh creation and this will be especially true for any job that is on some level routine or predictable.  If that happens, then adapting will be a huge challenge for us, and I think it eventually brings us to the need for an unconventional solution, such as a basic income.

Q: Which areas do you think might still surprise us, in terms emerging technology taking over?

I think many people will be surprised by the potential impact on work done by skilled, educated people. Right now the focus in on very tangible technologies like self-driving cars or physical robots.  A great deal of progress is going to occur in white collar areas. Information-based jobs can often be easier to automate because they require only software, and a great many roles will be susceptible. Beyond the specific issue of jobs being impacted, I think we will also see more and more control, throughout both society and the economy, being placed under algorithmic control. That process will bring both opportunities and risks.

Q: How might technological innovations in our private lives (arguably where we are ahead of business adoption) provide some hints as to future technology adoptions within enterprises?

The incredible degree of reliance nearly all of us have on mobile technology and features like Google maps and GPS navigation is one strong indication of how we are becoming ever more reliant.  I don’t think there’s any doubt that enterprises will likewise become more and more dependent, especially as AI becomes more capable.

Q: What can each and every one of us do not to fall victim to technological change, but to benefit from the awesome power of machine learning and other breakthroughs?

From a career perspective, the most important thing is to avoid falling into a role that is routine and predictable. Any work of that nature will be susceptible to automation via machine learning. I also think it is very important for all of us to be aware of the potential society-wide impacts of these technologies in the future and to have an open mind about the policies that may someday be required in order to adapt.

Q: How might the next generation of staff turn the business world on its head?

I think without doubt the biggest opportunity – and challenge – is going to be to figure out how to incorporate and leverage artificial intelligence in the enterprise.  In fact, that will become a business imperative, and organizations that fail to do it will quickly fall behind.


Look out for: Filippo Passerini is the former group president of GBS and Chief Information Officer at Procter & Gamble. Widely recognized as one of the world's most innovative and forward thinking CIOs, he led the integration of IT and the services groups to form one of the largest and most progressive Shared Services Organizations in the world. At Shared Services and Outsourcing Week 2017 (North America), he discussed how to stay ahead of the curve by focusing on agility, responsiveness, innovation, and employee productivity.

Posted: 03/20/2017

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