Feb 282017
 

What does the future of work really look like? Management consultant Rob Gaunt has some bad new for those looking forward to a future of leisure.

In his book Eliminate, Automate, Offshore; Gaunt looks at how the modern workplace is changing and the priorities of managements and boards in a competitive, globalised world.

Gaunt, who describes himself as a ‘corporate axe man’ warns the reader “you may not approve or like what I do, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen.”

To start the book, Gaunt gives a potted history of automation in the workforce and how processes can be improved by better management and new technology. He cites his local council garbage collection service which not so long ago would have required eight or nine workers per truck now only needing two.

This trend is coming to the rest of the workforce, Gaunt warns, adding that many of those jobs that can’t be automated can be outsourced.

“When I walk into an open plan office, I look and listen to the activity; if the overwhelming noise is of keyboard strokes rather than human voices, it’s a good clue that much of the functions being performed aren’t location dependent.”

Gaunt goes on to describe how effective outsourcing works with an emphasis on the client having to document their processes before shifting functions or departments to outside contractors as well as the importance of properly scoping and understanding an agreement.

Towards the end of the book, Gaunt examines what roles are likely to survive in higher cost economies along with the skills today’s children are going to need if they are going to avoid being ‘digital roadkill’ in an automated society.

Overall the book is a good read to understand the direction of today’s workforce and the factors driving it. It isn’t a pretty tale.

If anything; Eliminate, Automate, Offshore may be somewhat optimistic about the effects on the skilled trades, professional and managerial sectors as Gaunt probably underestimates how robotics and artificial intelligence are advancing.

Should you read the book, you may want to give your kids – and their teachers – a good talking too. The axe man is ruthless and he’s coming for many of our jobs.

Feb 212017
 

What can businesses do to prepare for an exciting but challenging future?

As part of the New South Wales Government’s Back to Business Week, I’ll be on the Meet the Future Head-On panel looking at the future of business and work.

Facilitated by Jo Kelly, Director of People, Place and Partnership, the seminar will look at local and global business changes and what they mean for small to medium companies.

The keynote speakers are Terry Rawnsley – Principal & Partner of SGS Economics and Planning – who’ll discuss his company’s analysis of the economy in the year 2026, and Karen Borg – the Chief Executive Officer of Jobs for NSW – with an overview of the state’s Jobs for the Future report.

Joining me on the panel will be Paul Fairhead, the Managing Director of Huddle; Jost Stollmann, the Executive Director of Tyro Payments and Marianne McGee, the owner of Allis Technology.

Tickets for the 6pm event on March 1 at the Sydney International Convention Centre are free and can be booked through Eventbrite.

Come along and have your say. Look forward to seeing you there.

Feb 192017
 

 

The statistics continue to come about the challenging future of work with the Harvard Business Review looking at how artificial intelligence is changing the role of knowledge workers and the World Economic Forum reports how Japan is already well down the track of automating many ‘white collar’ roles.

A couple of decades or so back, the assumption was ‘knowledge work’ represented the future of employment and the thought of management being replaced by computers or robots was unthinkable.

That hasn’t proved to be so as the low end jobs, which we thought would be taken up by displaced industrial workers were offshored, subject to a ‘race to the bottom’ in pay rates and, now, are increasingly becoming automated.

While the robots first came for call centre workers, it’s quite likely the next wave of will affect white colour workers reports Dan Tynan in The Guardian who has an overview of some of the likely fates of various occupations.

A good example of the shift, are lawyers with Tynan citing the company DoNotPay which uses AI to help customers fight traffic infringements as an example of the legal profession being automated out.

Bad for young lawyers

This though isn’t new in the legal profession. Over the past twenty years many roles in fields such as property conveyancing and contract drafting have been offshored, so much so that junior lawyer’s payrates and job prospects have collapsed as entry level jobs have dried up.

How the legal profession has used automation and offshoring is a good indicator of how these tradition industries are evolving, now a senior lawyer can handle more work and the need for juniors and paralegals is reduced. The work stays with the older worker while younger workers need to look elsewhere.

While Tynan discounts the effects of automation on the construction and health industries, those sectors are similarly being changed. Robot bricklayers, for example, allow older workers to stay in the industry longer and increase productivity.

The internet of things and artificial intelligence are similarly taking the load of nurses and doctors while making diagnostics faster and easier with major ramifications of these industries.

Dirty data

There are weaknesses in a data driven world and this gives us clues to where the future jobs may lie, the Harvard Business Review optimistically notes many roles can “composed of work that can be codified into standard steps and of decisions based on cleanly formatted data,” however obtaining ‘cleanly formatted data’ is a challenge for many organisations and managing exceptions, or ‘dirty data’ feeds, shouldn’t be underestimated.

Unexpected consequences exist as well, the media industry being a good example. While the demand for content has exploded, the rise of user generated content on social media and the collapse of advertising models has upended publishing, writing and journalism. While artificial intelligence and animation can replace actors and reporters, it hasn’t done so in a major way yet.

How industry sectors will be affected by automation is something the US Bureau of Labor Statistics looked at in 2010.

The roles which the US BLS estimates may be less affected by automation may be more affected than we think – how the retail and media industries changed in the twentieth century is instructive where the models at the beginning of the century were upended but by the end of the millennium employment in those sectors was higher than ever.

The future of work isn’t obvious and the effects of automation bring a range of unforeseen consequence and opportunities – this is why we can’t rest on our laurels and assume our jobs, trades and professions will be untouched by change.

Feb 082017
 

“Neo liberalism is dead” was Paul Mason’s opening for his talk ‘Will Robots Kill Capitalism?’ At Sydney university on Monday night.

Mason, who was promoting his book ‘Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future’ was exploring how we create an alternative to the failing neo-liberal world while avoiding the failings of the past.

Describing the current ennui towards establishment politics as being “the biggest change since the fall of the wall in 1989,” Mason believes that the neo-Liberal, pro-markets, view of the world is now failing because the general population increasingly can’t afford the credit which powers the current system.

Increasing voter hostility

With increased insecurity the general population’s hostility towards the global elites is only going to increase, Mason says, as a low work future is traps people into low income ‘bullshit jobs’.

Mason describes a bullshit job as being something like the hand car washes that have popped up around UK (and Australia) where workers are paid the absolute minimum to provide a service cheaper than any machine.

With bullshit jobs, it’s hard not to consider the white collar equivalent – just yesterday The Guardian, which Mason writes for – described a report by UK think tank Reform which suggested 90% of British public service jobs could be replaced by chatbots and artificial intelligence.

It’s easy to see those same technologies being employed in the private sector as well with middle management and occupations like Human Resources and internal communications being easily automated out by much flatter organisations.

A low work future

The result of that, which we’re already seeing, is increasingly profitable corporations that barely employ anyone.

However for companies like Google, Facebook and Apple those business models also present risks as they are valued by the market far beyond any reasonable expectation of return – even if they do manage to eat each other.

Another risk to today’s tech behemoths is the commoditization of many of their industries. “Not all of the high tech economy will be a high value economy.” Mason point out, going on to observe that Google may have recognised this in carrying out their Alphabet restructure.

The neoliberal Anglos

Not all countries though have followed the Anglo Saxon neo-liberal model over the past forty years though. In what Mason describes as “The yin and yang of globalIzation,” he point out China, Germany, Japan and South Korea Have focused on production and raising living standards while the English speaking nations enforced austerity on their populations with large groups being left behind both socially and economically.

Which leads to Mason’s key question, “will the low work future see neoliberalism replaced by ‘neo-feudalism’ or something more enlightened?”

To support the latter, Mason suggests a transition path into the ‘low work future with the following features;

  • automation
  • basic income
  • state provided cheap, basic goods
  • externalising the public good
  • attacking rent seeking
  • promoting the circular economy
  • investing in renewable energy

That list seems problematic, and at best hopelessly idealistic, in today’s economies – particularly in the neoliberal Anglosphere.

A need for new mechanisms

Mason’s points though are important to consider if we are facing a ‘low work’ society as there has to be some mechanisms to allow citizens a decent standard of living even if the bulk of the population is unemployed.

Even if we aren’t facing a low work future, the transition effects we’re currently experiencing where many of today’s jobs are going to be automated away threaten serious political and economic dislocation in the short to medium term.

What Mason reminds us is that the political and economic status quos can’t be maintained in the face of dramatic technological change. We have to consider how we’re going to manage today’s transformations so we don’t end up in a neo-feudal society with the discontent that will entail.

 

Jan 182017
 
social media is about connecting with friends

As the UK government ties itself in knots over what Brexit means, the French administration has announced a new set of skilled and tech visas, reports Tech Crunch.

While the French tech sector is nowhere near the size or diversity of the British ecosystem, it has been growing rapidly and various European centres are jostling to take London’s position as the continent’s leading IT city as Britain seems determined to squander its position.

Like many of these national initiatives the question will the French government have a long term commitment to this program? There is a strong possibility that the next administration in Paris may be as hostile as the British towards foreigners or, once the elections are out of the way, the momentum is lost.

It would be a shame if the French commitment turns out to be fleeting. With France’s economy stagnant, like most of the EU, new industries and talent are essential to triggering growth.

Over the next few years the forces of protectionism and xenophobia are going to cripple many of the world’s economies and societies. Where these visas are in a year’s time will tell us whether France will be one of those nations that’s turned its back on the 21st Century.

Nov 172016
 

Then the robots came for the wealth managers…

While much of the focus on the effects of automation in the workforce falls upon manual, skilled and lower level clerical jobs, much of the impact of the next wave of automation will fall on higher level roles.

The rise of the robot financial advisor is a good example of this, as Finextra reports, Well Fargo bank has teamed up with fintech startup SigFig to automate wealth management.

Wealth management has been a lucrative field for banks in recent years however it has come with a reputational risk as poorly trained, incompetent or unethical advisors have pushed customers into investments more aligned with the staffs’ commission structures than the clients’ interests.

Given the costs and risks of employing well paid financial advisors, it’s understandable banks would be attracted to automating the function.

The problem for the banks is automated tools will commoditise the marketplace and almost certainly drive down margins.

So, along with the well paid jobs, the river of gold that was wealth management dries up for the banking sector.

Sep 182016
 

What would happen if the world’s richest people invested in startup businesses? Bloomberg Business ran an interesting, if flawed, thought experiment looking at how many nascent companies each country’s richest individuals could invest in.

It’s surprising how low those numbers are and, if anything, the result underscore how the 1980s and 90s banking sector ‘reforms’ caused the world’s financial system to pivot from its historical purpose of funding commercial enterprises into speculation, rent seeking and manipulating markets.

Apart from a smattering of venture capital not much has replaced the banks in funding the SME and entrepreneurial sectors, if anything it has been those ultra high net wealth individuals who have been financing the investment funds providing capital to entrepreneurs.

How the finance industry evolves in the face of the fintech boom and a world that’s slowly becoming less indulgent of the industry’s greed will be one of the defining things of next decade’s business environment. For the small business and startup sectors getting the funding right will also be a key factor.

The biggest question though is job creation, being able to fund new and innovative investments will be one a critical concern for societies dealing with the effects of an increasingly automated economy.