Weird, Strange, and Unsettling

Cognizant’s Ben Pring on the Work of the Future

Benjamin Pring is Co-Director for Center for the Future of Work, a forward-looking group within Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. Pring previously spent 15 years as a Gartner analyst. In 2014, he co-authored the book Code Halos: How the Digital Lives of People, Things, and Organizations are Changing the Rules of Business. He’s currently working with his co-authors on a book about how a new “digital build-out” will offer future opportunities for those who can seize them.

Pring describes Cognizant, which boasts over $12 billion in annual revenue and over 220,000 employees, as helping companies like banks, airlines, and insurance providers manage technology and business processes. In other words, he and his colleagues aren’t just thinking about the future of work — they’re actively creating it. We interviewed him for a glimpse of what’s next.

What does Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work do? And why does Cognizant have such a group?

We have a charter to examine how work is changing, and will change, in response to the emergence of new technologies, new business practices, and new workers. Work is changing radically and increasingly rapidly in many, if not all, corners of the globe. Many mature industries are undergoing, at best, existential shocks, and at worst, complete tail spins. Old skills have declining value. Old business models based on those skill sets are being crushed under the weight of economics that no longer make sense.

But of course, many new industries are emerging and exploding in the red-hot furnace of digitization. Huge new money is being created from work that represents the future. Work that is weird and strange and unsettling and trivial and extremely stretching. Work that is not fit for our parents and will seem ridiculous to our kids.

I’ve worked in tech for over 30 years now and I don’t think my 91-year-old mother has the faintest clue what I do for a living! Now fast-forward another 20 years when our kids are working; I sort of hope I won’t understand how they make their daily bread — that will be a sign that things are changing and growing and developing.

Cognizant has to understand all of this in order to help our clients understand it. That’s our job at the Center for the Future of Work; as easy (and difficult) as that!

Since you’ve started focusing on the future of work, what has most surprised you about what’s happening today?

That there’s so much technology from the History of Work still at the heart of big organizations! If we learnt one thing from Y2K it was that old software never dies! Lots of really big, blue chip companies are run on software (custom developed and packaged) that’s 20, 30, 40 years old. Imagine trying to win F1 or NASCAR with a 20-year-old car, let alone a 40-year-old one. That’s in essence what lots of big businesses are trying to do at the moment.

If you’re not using the modern tools of the trade — what we in Cognizant call the “SMAC Stack” i.e. social, mobile, analytics, and cloud technologies — in a meaningful way, then you’re trying to fight a 21st century war with 20th century weapons. We don’t think that will end well!

What’s the most intriguing prediction you’ve encountered about what’s coming?

Well, the really big one that seems to get the most fur flying at the moment is that the “Singularity” will happen by 2045! We at the Center for the Future of Work are long on humans (in their present DNA-based configuration). The Singularity is an intriguing idea but there are a lot of twists and turns — and dead ends — between here and there. We could be wrong (that wouldn’t be a first) but 2045 seems a tad over-caffeinated in our opinion!

I believe something like two thirds of Cognizant’s workforce is based in India. We hear a lot today about how automation and software is actually reversing outsourcing trends by bringing work back to the United States — even if the jobs that come with it look nothing like that jobs that left in the first place. What’s your take on the relationship between outsourcing and automation?

We think that arbitrage plus automation is the killer model going forward. We’re embedding automation technologies into the services we offer clients; we call this Intelligent Process Automation.

In my days at Gartner some people used to talk about “offshoring being a detour on the automation highway”. A roughly $85 billion industry is a pretty big detour but there is no doubt that automation will be a major dynamic over the next few years. But we’re betting the combination of “smart hands” and “smart robots” will be pretty tough to beat.

Your previous book, Code Halos, was about “managing the information that surrounds people, organizations, processes, and products.” One job that people seem destined to do for a while is building systems that allow people to actually use this information. For instance, our Wordsmith platform for turning data into natural language on a massive scale can help managers and employee take action on their business intelligence data. Does the continued explosion of information color the way you think about the future of jobs and work?

Absolutely! We’ve seen this idea — which for many people in 2013 seemed very odd indeed — become central to more and more of our clients’ businesses in 2016. Some people think that “data is the new oil” is a worn-out line, but data remains the central opportunity (and threat) in front of us all today and for the foreseeable future.

As we wrote about in Code Halos, and as we see in our current work with clients, the paths forward on these issues are sometimes obvious and clear, but often not obvious or clear at all. If you’re not putting in place the new platforms and skills to leverage this new world you’re basically shutting yourself out of being able to play the new game.

Fill in the blank: the one thing today’s college students really need to understand about the future of work is . . .

They should watch The Graduate and listen out for the line “I’ve got one word for you Benjamin; algorithms”.


This interview was originally posted on AutomatedInsights.com.

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