For decades, even centuries, the way people work has been influenced by advances in technology. Major inventions like the Spinning Jenny, which accelerated the process of weaving, the steam train and the printing press are just a few examples of devices that created quantum leaps in productivity and communications.
The same process is happening today, but with one crucial difference: innovation is speeding up. A castle from the tenth century looks a lot like one from the eleventh, but compare a telephone from 100 years ago with the latest smartphone, and the scale of advancement becomes clear.
More recently, it took just 10 years for technologists to go from the first mass produced mobile phones, capable of storing numbers and sending text messages, to the iPhone, which incorporated a camera, internet and a constellation of apps that underpin how we work today.
Such lightning progress has triggered a paradigm shift. Experts are referring to it as a fourth industrial revolution, characterized by the principles of agility and lean business practices, and driven forward by cutting edge ideas such as machine learning, big data, and the internet of things.
But one principle stands to create more physical upheaval than even these major technological wonders — automation.
Systems that can faultlessly run through rules-based work will fundamentally change the way companies recruit and train their staff, the skills people need, and how they are deployed. It will govern decisions on location and which buildings are fit for purpose, as well as the management structure that makes decisions and carries them out.
This issue was tackled at the launch of Capgemini’s Applied Innovation Exchange in London, part of a global network of nine exchanges created to facilitate collaboration between start-ups, academics, and industry on key developments.
The Exchange in London combines the know-how of Capgemini experts with leading partners and a community of new businesses that are collectively defining future trends. The theme of the event was the “Future of Work”, with the role of automation technology at its core.
Delegates at the event were given access to a host of interactive tools and presentations and were encouraged to share their views on the opportunities and challenges of emerging organizational structures.
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Eleanor Winn, head of EMEA at SIG, is a sourcing expert advising businesses on how to get the right blend of internal and external capacity. She explains how the event helped to crystalize the challenge for decision-makers.
“The world of work is changing fast,” she explained. “Where companies are offshoring tasks, they are now considering using software. In a globalized economy, companies must be agile, but getting large groups of people to change tack can be a drawn-out process.
“Automation releases organizations from this problem, because robots do not behave like people. They don’t mind where they are located and they don’t need a tea break. There are clearly huge benefits to this, because it creates economies of scale and frees up companies to locate in the world’s most cost efficient locations.”
Adele Every, an innovation and SME champion at Capgemini, was also struck by the benefits for “collaboration, communication, and coordination,” as well as the prospect that automation software will free up people to work on creative projects.
In theory, many menial jobs will become obsolete in an automated future in the same way that robotics spared thousands of workers the tedium of the factory line. Redeployed workers will work in customer-facing roles and innovation projects that require a human hand.
She said, “The pace of change will never be as slow as it is today, which is pretty terrifying but amazingly exciting at the same time. We can bring partners together and develop new things in a few short hours. There will be a lot of change in the next few years and it’s about how we can manage that change.”
“From what we have seen, individuals need to think more about how they develop future skills. Companies – particularly small businesses – are changing the way they innovate, so we need to quickly get to grips with how these developments will change the way we work.”
Meanwhile, Barry Matthews, another delegate and managing director of Alsbridge, a sourcing advisory firm, said automation would create a need to protect workers in jobs that will soon be overtaken by computer programs.
“We have been looking at how technology will change the way we work and the organizational structures, how they will differ and what it means environmentally and economically,” he said.
“The demonstrations brought to life how lots of relatively menial tasks are coming back on-shore and being carried out by machines; that’s a hugely disruptive force in our industry. There will inevitably be job cuts but also job creation. Many large organizations have back offices full of people doing basic, rules-based tasks.”
He added: “But there is potentially a big skills gap for someone inputting data on a computer, for example. Can you retrain them to be a customer service executive or a data scientist? People need to work for their own sanity, so decisions in this area will be crucial for society. We will need to double-down on infrastructure, change the way we educate our young people, and encourage entrepreneurship. It’s a huge challenge globally.”
Technological advancement is nothing new, but the speed of change over the next decade could take organizations by surprise. Automation is a striking opportunity and businesses must prepare now to take advantage of the many opportunities without falling foul of some of the risks.
By Dan Matthews
Dan Matthews is a London-based journalist writing for the UK broadsheet press. He is also the author of ‘The New Rules of Business’, a book revealing the secrets of a range of entrepreneurs, and founder of the news website Minutehack.com. Titles he has written for include The Daily Telegraph, The Times, Raconteur Media, The Financial Times, The Guardian, Real Business Magazine and The Marketer.