Are machines threatening our jobs?

How to safeguard your career in digital times

Source: Belgium Cloud (24/07/2018) – Author: Steve Muylle

Back in 1961, when NASA introduced one of the first transistor-based computers – the enormous IBM 7090 – to its space programme, they assumed that this new technology would replace its human predecessors. Until then, NASA had relied on a team of African-American female mathematicians or human ‘computers’. But nothing could be further from the truth, concludes Professor of Digital Strategy Steve Muylle. He’s also the Academic Director of the new Online MBA programme at Vlerick Business School.

Instead of accepting their impending dismissal, team manager Dorothy Vaughan decided that her team had to learn the programming language to operate the 7090. As such, she safeguarded the team’s future by transforming them into vital technology intermediaries. This story was beautifully told in the film ‘Hidden Figures’ (2016). It also perfectly epitomises the current struggle between man and machine.

Like Vaughan and her team, today’s employees are confronted with the growing presence of technology in the workplace, in the form of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and robotics. In addition to being used on shop floors, this intelligent technology also has an impact on highly-skilled white-collar workers.

So, in that sense the story of the march of the robots is wrong. Because they have already taken their place among us. But how can employees ensure that they stay ahead of the digital curve?

In every industry and in every job

In 2017, Construction Robotics revealed its second-generation Semi-Automated Mason, called SAM for short. As this robot can lay up to 3,000 bricks a day, it is up to five times more efficient than its human counterparts.

While SAM is undoubtedly a miracle of technical efficiency, this development also marks a turning point in the struggle between human and robotic talent in the workplace. If a machine is faster, cheaper and more sustainable than human labour, then how will this affect labourers?

Mya and Albert

Both unskilled and highly-skilled employees in a growing number of sectors are currently asking themselves this question. In HR, an AI-powered recruitment assistant, called Mya, speeds up the work process by interviewing candidates through a chatbot and automatically planning face-to-face interviews with the most suitable applicants. In marketing, Albert, an artificially intelligent platform, uses a combination of predictive analyses, the processing of natural languages and machine learning for the execution of multichannel marketing campaigns that require very little in the way of human intervention.

Such applications are becoming increasingly intelligent, one of the many reasons for the growing sense of unease among employees. In its ‘2018 Workforce of the Future’ report, PwC concluded that 37 percent of the workforce are concerned about the long-term prospects for their jobs as a result of automation. Even the most highly-skilled roles have become increasingly automated. Now that technology is capable of thinking for itself and learning, could it be that no job is safe from the surge of digitisation?

Digitising your career

With the right mindset, this technological disruption can become an opportunity rather than a source of fear. As Vaughan demonstrated at NASA, the key to safeguarding your white-collar career and ensuring it survives the AI revolution is to evolve. While the 7090 could beat humans in terms of speed, accuracy and scope, you still needed humans to analyse and interpret the figures generated by these number crunchers.  

While digitisation has an impact on white-collar workers, the type of tasks that can be automated are generally of a more administrative and repetitive nature. Just look at the examples we gave: the classification of applications based on a set of criteria or the adaptation of pay-per-click advertising budgets. Employees waste a lot of precious time on such tasks. By assigning them to an AI system, employees have the time to focus on more creative, important and ultimately ‘human’ work. Because even technology that is capable of superhuman data mining efforts needs a human eye to provide a context for this data.

Impossible to replicate

The human brain has so much to offer that technology is simply unable to replicate it. And that is where the future of human business expertise is most obvious. Advanced quantitative skills, leadership with an affinity for culture, empathy, teamwork, coaching and pure, unadulterated innovation. These are the things at which people excel. The shift from ordinary human tasks to automated solutions might even pave the way for lots of new opportunities as we hone the human skills that allow us to attain higher and more strategic business levels.

As the Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) concluded, ‘the real challenge of digitisation […] is to prepare today’s employees for tomorrow’s labour market and improve everyone’s chances so they can take advantage of this digital transformation by switching to emerging sectors and professions’.

Transforming ourselves

Dynamic and impactful online learning provides the resources for honing these human skills. Thanks to a strong focus on interaction, appealing content and peer-to-peer networks, an Online MBA programme can help us acquire the insight and the perception - not to mention the very latest business skills - that we need to succeed in the era of digitisation. But on our own terms and without a career break.

Like Dorothy Vaughan, we must be ready to transform ourselves in the era of digitization.

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