What AI will do to the future of work and how humans do their jobs

New Adobe research shows workers value technology in the workplace, but as a panel of experts warns, the disruptive change fourth industrial revolution technologies present mean shaking up org structure, education and more

The Adobe Thinktank panel (from left): Shiao-Yin Kuik, Abhijit Bhaduri, Sarah Kaine, Dr Fiona Kerr, Dr Jordan Nguyen, Janine Perrett, Dr. Joseph Sweeney, Su-Yen Wong, Harlina Sodhi and Mark Henley
The Adobe Thinktank panel (from left): Shiao-Yin Kuik, Abhijit Bhaduri, Sarah Kaine, Dr Fiona Kerr, Dr Jordan Nguyen, Janine Perrett, Dr. Joseph Sweeney, Su-Yen Wong, Harlina Sodhi and Mark Henley

More than 50 per cent of office workers across Asia-Pacific rate access to cutting-edge technology in the workplace above perks such as food and office design, a new report claims.

Yet with artificial intelligence (AI) predicted to eradicate 40 per cent of Australian jobs in the next 10-15 years, more companies need to be mindful of seeding control to next-generation technologies or losing sight of the human in the midst of the next wave of organisational change.

That was the view shared by a panel of experts brought together by Adobe to debate the ramifications of the fourth industrial revolution on the way we work, the jobs we do versus the jobs we automate, and the skills required. The ‘Thinktank’ debate, broadcast live on Facebook, came off the back of Adobe’s new The Future of work: Asia-Pacific December 2017 research, which surveyed more than 4700 respondents across the region on why and how they work.

According to the research, collaborative technologies are enabling office workers to be more innovative, with tools such as teleworking, audio, Web and video conferencing considered the most valuable, followed by multiple collaboration platforms. Wider use of technology is also being seen as delivering efficiencies and improving productivity.

For example, when asked which factors are important in creating the idea working space, respondents said state-of-the-art technology for their workstation was key (51 per cent), followed by technology that connects them to colleagues (45 per cent). In Australia and New Zealand, these figures were 56 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively.

Office workers who rated their company as above-average business performers were also more likely to say their organisation is ‘extremely focused’ on leveraging workplace technology, against companies rated below-average performers. According to the report, out-performing companies are more likely to be focused on workplace technology by a factor of 2.4 times.

In addition, APAC workers are willing to try cutting-edge technologies, such as AI and machine learning, to help with more mundane tasks. This was despite the fact that 73 per cent of workers in Asia-Pacific are either extremely or somewhat concerned about the impact AI and machine learning will have on their jobs. Australian workers were much less concerned, however, with 34 per cent extremely or somewhat concerned, and 57 per cent not concerned at all about AI and machine learning.

Is tech controlling us, or are we controlling it?

It’s the rise of the fourth industrial age and its potentially negative consequences on the human in the workplace that took centre stage in the Thinktank debate.

IBRS advisor, Dr Joseph Sweeney, was quick to suggest automation is going to make a far deeper impact on jobs than the 40 per cent predicted by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia.

As it happens, neuroscience and leadership academic and consultant, Dr Fiona Kerr, said it’s vital organisations get a handle on what humans bring to workplace that is unique, what can be done with technology, and how to use both of them well together.

“If we just go for new bright shiny things, we underestimate the capacities that get blocked or aren’t as well done through technologisation,” she said. “What relationship do we want to have with technology and why do you buy it in the first place? What do you want to achieve and how does technology allow you to do that?”

UTS Business School associate professor, Sarah Kaine, was concerned about seeding control to technology.

“Yes, technology is advancing at an incredible and exciting pace, but we also have agency over what happens to us, our workplaces, what happens to us and society,” she said. “It’s a balancing act between harnessing the power of technology, but not losing that sense of agency on what happens.

“Forty per cent job obsolescence doesn’t have to happen, we can work with technology. If we can do this tech stuff, we can certainly think about what it means for society.”

Adobe director of transformation and digital strategy APAC, Mark Henley, pointed out the unpredictable consequences of emerging technologies often far outstrip their planned use. As an example, he noted the penny farthing and how it liberated women.

“Today, we have 5-6 game changing technologies coming at us simultaneously. We have to be careful we don’t inadvertently seed that control because we can’t predict the consequences,” he said.  

For Henley, this is about the element of choice. “For the first time, we have the option choice to be people centric, not technology or process centric,” he continued. “I’d hope more thoughtful organisations would put people first.”

Sweeney said more focus needs to be places on the ‘why’ for technology in the workplace. “I don’t see that being asked sufficiently by technologists or organisations in Australia,” he said.

Building the skills for the future of work

The fear of change is a huge factor in this shift. Psykinetic founder, Dr Jordan Nguyen, believed the fourth industrial revolution was being sensationalised because humans have always worried about the unknown and focused on what we are going to lose. “Other jobs will turn up,” he said.

“One of the problems is companies want to know technology how will impact them, and in some cases they lose sight or purpose of the innovation. They’re just trying to keep up with competitors and the disruptions.”  

Abhijit Bhaduri and Associates founder, Abhijit Bhaduri, saw some devastation for those who are unprepared for the “digital tsunami”. What should be considered here is meaning, he said.

“When you take the skills with which people have been working away, a lot of meaning needs to be created for people again,” he said. “While a lot of thought is going into how to automate, there’s not enough debate about the ethical aspects of it, or how we reskill people.”

So much of this comes down to learning, and panellists all had a strong view on the need for the education process to be shaken up. Instead of just focusing on teaching kids to code or focusing on technology aptitude, Sweeney said more emphasis should be placed on the “constructivism” thinking behind STEM skillsets.

“That gives students and works great mental framework to approach solving problems with various technologies and tools at hand,” he said. “It’s a thinking methodology. I actually think one of the jobs that will go soon is coding.”  

The Thought Collective co-founder and director, Shiao-Yin Kuik, said training to think mathematically, as opposed to learning maths for exam, is vital.

“It’s a powerful person who can navigate whatever change comes their way. Most education systems today are not producing that result or rewarding that behaviour,” she said.  

Kuik labelled it complex thinking, but also having an aptitude to relate to others. “You need head, heart and hand coming together,” she said.

For Bhaduri, it’s the “rise of relationship worker than knowledge worker”. “New skillsets are coming in that focus on the way you talk and way you understand others,” he said.

Henley, meanwhile, saw individuals with an unparalleled autonomy in their work. This makes it possible for people to self-direct, changing the nature of org structure and processes. Yet the transformation work Adobe does shows all too often that senior leaders don’t have those skills.

“As an established workforce, how do we shift from tribalism and silo to inclusivity and broader base of EQ – that’s a big question,” Henley said.  

Adding to the problem is the lack of value placed on soft skills, Dr Kerr said. She noted roles such as nursing, education and caring are commonly the worst paid in economies.

“But we know social capital wise, they’re critical,” she said. “We must wake up to the fact they’re really important and reposition them.”

Dr Kerr also highlighted a misalignment between people using technology to increase their bottom line, and those focused on ethics and a better world. “What we’re not doing is differentiating is that complex problem solving, abstractive creative thinking – the stuff technology can’t do,” she added.  

Then there’s the issue of individuals who can handle change, versus those who can’t. According to Henley, transformation over the past few years has divided companies into two halves: Workers who want and are able to change; and those unable or threatened by change. He saw an extension of that process as new technologies are introduced.

“Those with the mental capacity, training and disposition will embrace change; those that don’t will struggle,” he said. “Companies have a moral obligation is to take those folks and move them along the journey they are on. And there’s no single answer for everybody.

“What I hope is employee-centric approach, coupled with tech, liberates the native creativity in all of us. However utopian it sounds, work improves for everybody that way.”

Sweeney advised giving people the tools to do their job, but also encouraging them to find the one thing that will improve their work and others and experimenting with it.

“Only three of the 147 organisations I’ve talked to have nailed this culture of innovation and desire to have constant improvement in the workplace,” he said. “It has to come with ‘bounded permission’ to let workers make their own decisions about how they’re going to get work done.”

Coping with AI

As AI comes to the fore, Henley outlined three imperatives. The first is recognise the idea of “rehumanising” – yourselves, the workforce and how you think about customers as people.

“Secondly, recognise technology is coming as an avalanche,” he said. “Choose to be part of the conversation or not. Thirdly, technology is a good opportunity and it’s a positive influence. You have to decide how that influence will affect every part of your existence – as human and employee.”

Technology expands our opportunity, Kuik agreed. “But doesn’t tell us what game is worth playing and the ramifications of that game,” she said. “Technology creates a huge amount of pain if we don’t ask the right questions. My question is: Does technology strengthen the amount of trust or take away trust? All systems need trust to survive.”

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