How to not lose your job to a computer

Digital disruption seems to be the buzz-word at the moment. Technological leaps are enabling entrepreneurs and innovators to develop new and unexpected business models (think, for example, Airbnb and Uber). The number of jobs at risk of being automated is astounding (up to 5 million by 2030 in Australia alone, according to Australia’s Future Workforce report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia), while other jobs will soon need job holders who know how to work effectively (interface?) with computers.

Artificial intelligence. Automation. Advanced robotics. Digital technology and the Internet of Things. Redefined business models and jobs. Pretty mind-boggling yet, as the Prime Minister would no doubt say, very exciting.

Research by McKinsey & Company indicates that existing technologies can automate 45% of the work done in the UASA and a further 13% can potentially be automated. Australia’s Future Workforce report estimates that nearly 40% of today’s jobs in Australia are at risk of being automated and turned over to computers; worst hit is predicted to be jobs in regional and rural Australia, where more than 60% of jobs are set to be swallowed by computers.

And it isn’t only the routine jobs and tasks technology is set to swallow up. By adapting current technology, computers can take on many of the more predictable tasks of highly-paid knowledge workers such as executives, financial planners, ‘techies’ and doctors.

Mental processes such as remembering and making decisions, can be transferred to computers, microchips and networks. Richard Samson, writing in The Futurist, calls this automation ‘off-peopling’. Electronic intelligence, he says, already does a lot of the mental work that accountants, administrators, bank tellers, corporate planners, farmers, middle managers, product designers, salespeople, secretaries and soldiers used to do.

But there is still work that we can do and enjoy, provided we hone and use our non-programmable ‘hyper-human’ skills like caring, communicating, creating and taking responsibility. And provided we learn to innovate and create – products, processes, business models – it matters not what, as long as it’s viable, we can put those skills to work in jobs that electronic systems can’t perform now or any time soon.

Since computers don’t get bored and let their attention wander, they’re generally better than us in defined, predictable, repetitive and structured work. But we’re better than computers at hyper-human tasks that involve emotions, imagination, sensory perception and social skills and decisions that need intuition as well as logic and fact. These are prized abilities in some workplaces of today and probably most workplaces of the near future.

Many of these jobs are waiting to be created. You can do that by transforming and upgrading your current job so that it really benefits from your human skills. A good place to start is by letting go of last-century thinking about a job as functional activity, since these are the ones automation is taking over.

Use your skills to build relationships with colleagues, customers and suppliers. Stay alert to what’s going on around you so you can notice problems and fix them, find opportunities and work out ways to make the most of them, and prevent mishaps and mistakes.

Honour your commitments. Innovate new and improved ways of working by making tasks and processes easier, cheaper, faster or safer to do, or result in greater reliability or improved quality. Small adjustments here, little tweaks there, all add up to making you an invaluable employee.

Learn to work collaboratively in virtual teams, especially virtual project teams. Or build your skills so you’re indespensible to a process-based team (rather than a functional team).

You can also learn to work in tandem with computers (called ‘augmented intelligence’). Instead of being replaced by a computer, you’re supported by a computer in your analytic, creative and decision-making efforts. The computer supplies the raw data, options and conclusions and you do what the computer can’t – use good judgement to make the final decision. To do that, you need the thinking and judging skills to filter a deluge of information.

Okay, now that you’ve waded your way through the backlog of post-Christmas administration, what is the most important step you can take in the next five days to protect your job and your career from digital disruption and advanced robotics?

(This is longer than usual but hey, it’s important – it’s your future.)

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