The world of work has changed immeasurably over the last ten years, not just in the UK but across all developed countries. Repetitive, process driven jobs have been automated, with technology replacing paper-based workflows. In many cases this has led to a hollowing out of sectors and companies, with the remaining workforce split between menial roles and higher level management.
And these changes are accelerating. A report in The Economist points to new technological disruption in the workplace, driven by computers getting cleverer and becoming self-learning. Lightweight sensors, more powerful cameras, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, big data and advances in processing power are all contributing to helping computers do brain work. Innovations such as driverless cars and household robots don’t require human intervention to operate, and can do more than traditional machines.
Research from Oxford University suggests that 47% of today’s jobs could be automated within the next 20 years. Many of these roles are in previously ‘safe’ middle class professions such as accountancy, the law and even journalism.
So, this begs two questions. What skills do people need if they are going to thrive in this new world – and are we teaching them to children quickly enough?
The employees of the future will require skills that complement machine intelligence, rather than mirror it. Empathy, the ability to motivate, and being able to think outside the box will all be needed. Essentially soft skills, backed up by specialist knowledge that is based on experience that cannot be replicated by machines. Professions such as therapists, dentists, personal trainers and the clergy are all seen as being relatively safe from replacement by robots. Interestingly entrepreneurs often possess these talents, so expect them to thrive as they use technology such as the cloud to bring their innovations to market quickly.
As a knock on effect, the will be a change in the size of companies people work for. Before the Industrial Revolution most people worked either for themselves or in small organisations (the village carpenter and his apprentice for example). Industrialisation required scale, so vast mega companies grew up. These won’t disappear, but the number of people working for them will shrink dramatically as intelligent machines take over. We’ll move to a larger proportion of the population being self-employed, providing their services on a personal basis.
Looking at education, schools will also need to change. Pupils need to understand the world around them, so they have to be taught a certain number of facts and dates, but rote learning of what made the British Empire great is going to be useless for a large proportion of people’s careers. What is needed is to teach skills for learning and adapting, thinking for yourself and how to motivate and show empathy to others. Essentially, children starting school today will be going into careers that may not even exist yet – so lifelong learning and flexibility are critical.
The predictions of the havoc that technology will cause to the world of work may be overstated – just because something is technically possible, it doesn’t mean it will quickly become mass market. And governments, worried about massive social change, are likely to step in to mitigate the worst impact through legislation. But changes are coming, and we need to think more like entrepreneurs and less like machines if we’re going to thrive.
There’s good and bad news from the latest Deloitte UK technology Mergers & Acquisitions survey.
On the plus side respondents believe the market is looking up, with increased optimism and higher prices paid for tech businesses.
But on the downside confidence in going public in 2011 has crashed – with only 16 per cent seeing increased investor appetite for tech IPOs. And more worryingly given the government’s plans to use the tech sector to kick start the economy, the acquisition market is still being driven by overseas companies. 90 per cent of those surveyed believe that the US will remain the dominant buyer of UK tech businesses.
Why should this start ringing alarm bells? Not through any desire for protectionism of UK companies – tech is one of the most truly global markets and nowhere is that more obvious than in M&A. The issue is that the stall in IPOs combined with the acquisition of breakthrough UK tech businesses risks reducing the number of UK leaders we need to encourage other companies and sectors. Large, quoted companies create their own ecosystem, building up a network of suppliers, spin-outs and related businesses that mutually interconnect. For example, look at the cluster of neural network/data mining companies around Cambridge. Headed by Autonomy, companies as diverse as Linguamatics, Transversal and True Knowledge all use broadly similar technology to solve completely different sets of business problems. They benefit from access to staff and suppliers that understand the market – take out the kingpin and it gets more fragmented, and consequently companies and people drift away.
So we need a way of encouraging IPOs that attract investors for the medium to long-term – perhaps that would be a better use for government cash than propping up the banks or the Irish economy?
- Deloitte: UK Tech Firms Don’t Think 2011 Is The Year To Go Public (paidcontent.org)
- Brain drain fears as cash-rich US firms eye UK tech rivals (telegraph.co.uk)
- Tech Mergers and Acquisitions Coming Back (time.com)
The news that Google is canning its Wave product has the online world in a bit of a tizzy. In my opinion it suffered as people weren’t really sure what it did (email? Instant messaging? Document collaboration? All of the above?) and it was launched by invitation – hardly the way of building a mass audience quickly
So, if the likes of Google can’t convince us to use new tools, have we reached the end of the road for social media innovation?
I think not, but as social media moves more mainstream new services need to convince people (not just early adopters) to invest time and effort in trying something new.
Let’s go back to marketing science. Social media has crossed Geoffrey Moore’s famous chasm, so to gain interest new services have to appeal to the early majority, rather than just visionaries and early adopters. It doesn’t matter that social media tools tend to be free – what costs (and puts people off) is the amount of time they need to invest in learning them and the potential payback.
The early majority aren’t interested in tech for tech’s sake, they want something that will solve a problem or replace a tried and tested solution. And it has to be easy to use and not take up too much of their time to set-up. Wave failed on pretty much all of these points, meaning it was always destined to be a niche. So rather than a launch Google would have done better to define what it did, build a community of early adopters and then go mainstream.