In our digital-first future, a people-centric approach will still matter. Here’s why.

By: Max Adams
Max Adams
Max has a keen interest in the transformative power of technology and is the founder of a platform called Current Frequencies.… read more.
on Oct 21, 2020

A digital-first future is inevitable – it’s coming to every home, workplace and industry. In just a few years, digital assistants, artificial intelligence (AI), automation and machine learning will be part-and-parcel of a normal day. Emerging technologies will surround us, ready to fulfil many of our requests.

Therein lies a thorny issue. Many jobs and specialities will become redundant due to digitisation. Whatever can be automated, most likely will – to improve safety, efficiency and productivity. Where does this leave human workers? As we embrace the digital-first future, organisations and investors would do well to remember the people working with such technology. By placing people at the heart of all digitisation plans, you can ensure a business benefits from the strengths of both man and machine. 

The potential impact of digitisation

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If you look at the numbers, the workplace impact of automation and other technology will be stark. By 2030, 47% of professions are predicted to disappear, with the developing world most at risk. Many organisations will turn to digital transformation because of the bottom-line benefits (the potential boost to global GDP from AI will be $15tn by 2030). 

Impacted workers will have to be supported to find new roles and sources of income. Indeed, some technology entrepreneurs are advocating for a Universal Basic Income to be rolled out for all citizens in the wake of automation. The fear is that automation-related job losses will impact lower and mid-tier skilled workers more than senior white-collar workers and, therefore, increase social inequality and result in unequal income loss. 

Change, accelerated

The pace of digital transformation has increased due to the disruption of 2020. Estimates suggest that digitisation accelerated by two years in the first two months of the global lockdown as people switched to working from home and businesses found new digitally-powered efficiencies to survive. 

As Jeff Connolly, Chairman and CEO, Siemens Australia New Zealand explains, “Digitalisation has become more important than ever before. We need a level of flexibility and speed that hasn’t been required to date.”

Who are the people affected?

Digitisation will have long-lasting impacts across all business operations, For leaders who are taking a people-centric approach to digitisation, it’s vital to map out all potential stakeholders and involve them early-on with digital transformation strategies. 

Broadly speaking, three sets of people will be impacted by any digitisation strategy:

Employees: these individuals usually have preconceived ideas about the role technology should plan in their work lives and this is usually shaped by the role of technology (like smart home assistants) in their personal lives. With considered investment in the right tools, employers can surprise and delight employees by making their workday more productive, enjoyable and satisfying. Automation can remove many mundane, manual tasks from their to-do lists, giving more time for strategic and creative thinking and relationship-building. 

Customers: these individuals come with similar expectations as employees in that they want technology to make their lives easier and to facilitate connections with a company. Increasingly, customers are turning to digital channels like social media and online forums to experience and discover brands. Emerging technology like AI and machine learning can create more targeted and personalised marketing, frictionless transactions, and anticipate a customer’s needs and wants. 

Partners: the third ecosystem of individuals to consider are partners. Businesses are increasingly recognising the value of working with a range of partners and collaborating across industries. Particularly as digital transformation and other external influences are reshaping and disrupting the old ways of work. Digital enables new value to be explored and created with partners, from improving a supply-chain to transacting on sector-wide standards. 

Finding solutions

Along with the benefits that digitisation brings there are also challenges to overcome. As machines take on more of the heavy lifting (both figuratively and practically) in our workplaces, it becomes highly likely that there won’t be enough work to go around. The 5-day work week may soon be a relic of the past. With this in mind, what are people who find themselves without work supposed to do?

The need for upskilling

Re-skilling for new roles is one avenue that Connolly recommends and he highlights the need for quick action in upskilling, “A digitally skilled workforce was foreseen in the Industry 4.0 roadmap – but the pandemic has accelerated the urgency to establish these skills at scale.”

Again, workers with low education find themselves at a bigger disadvantage to tertiary-educated peers. 44% of workers with a love education will be at risk of automation by the mid-2030s. Those that fail to upskill in digital skills will find themselves at the bottom of the candidate list in the future of work. 

Yet, many may not know where to start. 34% of adults without school education (or training beyond school) say that they aren’t learning new digital skills, compared to just 17% of college graduates. Those with the fewest opportunities to upskill are most at-fear of losing their jobs to automation. 

Employers should bear these fears in mind as they introduce automation and other emerging technology to their workforce. Especially if they hire a significant number of low-education and mid-tier workers. Providing digital upskilling opportunities and communicating the plans to shift people into new roles if theirs becomes automated will go a long way in alleviating concerns. 

Creating new work opportunities

Not all tasks can be completed by machine. We will still need people to figure out how to make the world a better place, entrepreneurs to create new businesses, and business leaders to apply human understanding to a machine’s work and insights. The future of work will be powered by masses of data and an AI can only go so far in extracting insights from it. 

Humans will be needed to understand the nuances in data, to apply their life experience and business acumen, and to provide oversight on an AI’s actions and decisions. There will be new roles created through digitisation that we cannot yet predict – and people should be prepared as far as possible to step into their roles as soon as they arise. Upskilling will play a part in this, along with building responsiveness and agility into the workforce.

Shifting work styles

As part of this, the traditional 9-5 won’t be seen in many workplaces. Gig and project-based work will build the agility needed for organisations to quickly respond to disruption and new opportunities. People will become free agents, collaborating with several companies and clients at once. 

This will necessitate a new kind of technology, platforms that enable businesses to quickly find and select contractors based on their skills, availability and ratings. Platforms like QUASA are helping businesses to find workers for a variety of tasks, uniting professionals from fields like architecture, design, marketing, psychology, engineering, science and healthcare. 

Using AI, people can be quickly found and placed onto projects that suit their interests and skills. Then, another emerging technology, the blockchain, can be used to issue smart contracts to give a contractor and their client greater peace-of-mind that the work will be completed to a high standard. 

A human touch needed

We are facing an unprecedented, uncertain future and digitisation is providing a way for businesses to navigate the coming years. But as we re-engineer our operations ready for the future, it’s vital not to lose sight of the people at the centre of these efforts.

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