Has a fear of robots contributed to a lack of business investment in technology? Is an absence of artificial intelligence a challenge for the UK economy? Can we move into a Fourth Industrial Revolution without major investment in new research and discoveries?
Humanity in a digital age
While the role of technology is shifting from computation to cognition, professions have a greater need to understand their end consumers. Can technology reduce the distance between organisations and consumers? Could understanding the evolutionary cycle of technology help?
It is now impossible to turn a corner without some reference to technology transforming our lives and how it is leading us to a future of work that is irreversibly different and unrecognisable. Broadly speaking, there is truth to this. Broadly speaking, there isn’t!
Rather than getting into the detail of estimating the contours of the future workplace itself – which jobs stay, which jobs go – it is conceptually more useful to reflect on the evolutionary cycle of technology, where we are within it and consequently how we prepare as it unfolds. This preparation requires a mix of up-skilling, reskilling and crucially unlearning. Doing things differently can require behaviour change as much as a skills change. However, preparation benefits from an appreciation of the cycle as it can help with a view on direction of travel. So that one isn’t just playing catch-up, but also anticipating future work demands earlier in the cycle.
Technology moving forward to greater maturity
For the accountancy profession, several terms (some more new than others) have entered the standard list of recognisable jargon – robotic process automation (RPA), cloud computing, internet of things (IoT), cybersecurity, machine learning, big data analysis and blockchain to name a few.
This might be seen as phase 1, where the emphasis has been on building awareness (this stuff exists), and breaking resistance (this stuff matters). One way to think about phases 2, 3 and 4 is in terms of maturity, convergence and human-centricity.
Clearly different technologies are at different levels of maturity. But regardless of where they are, the immediate next step is to move forward to greater maturity. For instance, in the case of blockchain, events have moved from concept stage discussions, to proofs of concepts, to minimum viable products and towards full-scale production solutions. This increased maturity means that considerations are moving beyond just scalability to data privacy, risks and governance.
As different technologies mature in their cycle of evolution, they start to converge and interplay with each other. Let’s take a look at our list of technologies above as an example. There are a couple of really ‘core’ drivers that have set off a chain reaction of events. Firstly we’re generating orders of magnitude - more data than we ever did before; and secondly we’re processing orders of magnitude - more data than we ever could before.
The push and pull of producers versus consumers
IoT relates to generating more data than we ever have done before as all manner of devices are now capable of sending user data. But, one needs a mechanism to safely store and manage this data – enter the cloud. Now that it’s there it would be quite nice to understand the data a bit better to predict possible future transaction opportunities - big data analytics anyone? And if we’re in a dynamic real-time network of participants transacting with one another, how about a programmable database with a super audit trail to enable this without the bottle-neck of too much centralised control - blockchain. All this is not a purely conceptual thought experiment. For example, as of early February 2018, the city of Taipei has partnered with the inventors of an IoT technology to create a blockchain-based solution to track data from citizen identity to pollution levels. The world is getting urbanised and a lot more work will be happening in cities – so how cities are structured affects how work is conducted within them.
Which brings us to the third element: human-centred. Technology development has a problem in that it is hard-wired for the ‘producer to push the product’. In fact innovation is generally expressed in terms of NPD or new ‘product’ development. Yet the future will inescapably see an increase in the need for technology to respond where the ‘consumer pulls for a solution’. This needs innovation to be expressed as new ‘human-centred solution’ development. It doesn’t trip off the tongue but it’s important nevertheless! Going back to the example of Taipei above, the average citizen in that city doesn’t really care about ‘blocks’, ‘chains’ or ‘things’. But they care that they could have a definitive cyberattack-proof digital identity that updates in real-time across a range of portals where they access government services.
Technology changes the future of work a lot, but then again it doesn’t. It will change the types of work available and the skills needed to do them. But as sure as night follows day, we will see the journey of technologies maturing, technologies converging and technologies needing to develop a human-centricity to make them relevant and relatable. And in that last bit, humans will adapt and find ways to tap into their humanity, albeit in a new context.
Another way of putting it is that, I’m not really of the view that robots can permanently and meaningfully replace the human. Yes it is true that with developments like artificial intelligence and machine learning, there is a fundamental shift in the role of technology from computation to cognition. That’s big. No doubt about it. But is that the same as suggesting true singularity and sentient understanding? I think the jury’s out on that one. For me business judgment, contextual understanding, an ethical compass and emotional empathy aren’t up for sale just yet.
Technology working for humans
Human-centricity ultimately has to be the end-game for technology. For professions like accountancy this means a greater need to understand the end consumer. Social media for example, is for many Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) an important part of the overall strategy. This could be to communicate information pertinent to investor relations and/or to manage a more dynamic two-way channel of communication between the company and its external stakeholders. Indeed in many sectors, it is now a standard expectation for a company to be transparent about its views to those outside its organisational boundaries. This means professions need to train their members and future members to think outside organisational siloes and to recognise that technology reduces the ‘distance’ between them and the end consumer.
How can we champion better work and working lives, now and into the future?
Choices will need to be between a civilization that takes a few to the stars, and one that takes the many