The future is automated. Here’s how we can prepare for it

The digital revolution is transforming the world of work. Image: REUTERS/Robert Pratta

Peter Miscovich, Managing Director, JLL


A good receptionist should have certain characteristics: helpful, friendly, organized. But do they need to be human? Perhaps not anymore. Walk into JLL’s Carrington Street office in Sydney and you’ll be greeted by JiLL, our new receptionist who can assist in a delivery, contact your hosts, recognize employees or visitors, and more. It is just one of a growing number of robotic staff now working in offices around the world.

In the 2020s and beyond, robotic versions of people, such as HUBO — the star of last year’s Davos meeting — will perform tasks previously reserved for humans. But that’s only part of the picture. Yes, automation has begun to displace human workers, as some predicted, but the effect is more than just replacement — it’s advancement. The influx of sophisticated technologies will enable us to think of work in new and innovative ways.

New roles for humans are already emerging as a result of automation. In a recent article for the Financial Times, Gillian Tett recounted how anthropologist Benjamin Shestakofsky spent 19 months inside a California company that uses digital technologies to connect buyers and sellers of domestic services. His thoughts on the topic? “Software automation can substitute for labour but it also creates new human-machine complementaries … (and) new types of jobs.”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution workforce

Contrary to fearsome scenarios about robots replacing humans, cognitive computing, robotics and workforce automation feature prominently in most projections of the future workplace.

For many organizations, exploiting the emerging technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has become a strategic priority. Many companies are infusing products, services and operations with digital assets and technologies, disrupting old business models and creating new ones. As described in Nine Elements of Business Transformation, digitization and automation require wholesale changes in how an organization performs, and how humans go about their daily work.

More than 260,000 robots are working in US factories today, with most working in the automotive, semiconductor and electronics industries. This reduces demand for low-skilled labour but increases the need for access to highly skilled talent to manage the robots.

In white-collar workplaces, automation takes the form of cognitive computing assistants like JiLL and robotic process automation, which enables employees to configure software robots to complete repetitive, time-consuming work, such as client profile updates, insurance claims processing, credit card applications or healthcare patient registration. Software robots, or virtual assistants, are assuming formerly human duties such as auto-correspondence, appointment scheduling and other office functions.

This does not mean the future will be a battle of man-versus-machine. Rather, there is the opportunity for humans to work with machines, suggests Thomas W. Malone, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and co-director of MIT’s Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century initiative. As machine co-workers grow increasingly competent, human-to-machine collaboration technologies will make organizations more intelligent and greatly improve overall human work performance to drive greater business value.

An employee checks robotics arms picking up calissons d’Aix at the French manufacturer factory Roy Rene in Puyricard near Aix en Provence, France, December 15, 2016 which are traditional sweets from Provence, made with almonds and candied melon and created in France in the mid-15th century.

Image: REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

Emerging business models

Even the most thoughtful C-suite executive may find it difficult to anticipate the future, although most appear to recognize that powerful forces are already affecting their industries. Executives at 91% of companies say digital technologies have the potential to fundamentally transform the way their companies work. Exactly how remains to be seen.

Already, we see examples of emerging business models combining the advantages of automation with the creative energy of the human workforce. “Network Orchestrators,” as defined in Knowledge@Wharton, are a new kind of company that deliver value through relationships rather than hard assets or human-provided services. Companies like eBay, Uber or TripAdvisor, for instance, leverage technology to create their networks. These enterprises grow revenues more quickly, generate higher profit margins and use assets more efficiently than companies with other business models.

The ‘liquid workforce’ and the ‘human cloud’

This current premium on speed will continue, even as new organizational challenges arise, such as the destabilization of the way people work, reports McKinsey Quarterly. To achieve fast growth in a human/robot hybrid environment, companies need to pay attention to the stability of their workforce and stay in tune with the needs of the people within the enterprise. It’s only natural that as this trend progresses, companies will need a different scale and mix of workers than today. A different mix of work locations and work environments will also be needed to support these next-generation “digital” talent requirements.

Thus, we are witnessing the emergence of the “liquid workforce” and the “human cloud” as new workforce models. The “liquid workforce” refers to employees who are able to re-train and adapt to their environment in order to stay relevant during the digital revolution. In recent years, Accenture and the business media have popularized the “liquid workforce” term, bringing it into the mainstream business lexicon as Accenture develops innovative and dynamic “liquid” workforce strategies for itself and its clients.

Among companies that create strong processes for managing the “agile workforce”, the “Hollywood model” can become their new competitive advantage in an environment of constant technological disruption, according to Accenture Technology Vision 2016. The Hollywood model brings together autonomous, on-demand workers for project-based work onsite or to perform work remotely. Today, “human cloud” freelance workers comprise 35% of the workforce, and their numbers are expected to reach 75% to 80% of the future enterprise workforce by 2030.

To rapidly assemble the right skills and right capabilities, innovative “crowdsourced” workforce management technology platforms have emerged. Online platforms enable companies to draw from a geographically dispersed talent base for work that does not require in-office presence.

Some companies are also using what former Manpower CEO Jeffrey Joerres has dubbed “micro-market analysis” and “micro-foot printing” to track global shifts in talent availability and costs, rapidly shifting work from one country to another to stay ahead of their competitors. In many industries, a global strategy for finding highly skilled, cost-effective labour is becoming a necessity.

Preparing for an unknown, increasingly automated, future

Computing advances are accelerating the pace of innovation, enabling companies to launch new products and services in ever-shorter timelines. As this capability grows, new ways of working and collaborating will render some facilities and locations obsolete. Companies will have increased needs for technology-ready facilities, flexibility and access to new kinds of talent. Those that need to turn on a dime to stay competitive will need to build agility into their real estate strategies and create specialized work environments for jobs that don’t yet exist, in industries that have not yet emerged.

In fact, the growing presence of mobile working and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies is already affecting how much space companies need, where facilities are located, and how space is configured, utilized and managed. Many companies are rethinking their locations with an eye to the skillsets they need in the future. The drive will be towards operating locations that support business transformation and performance with greater access to target demographics, unique skill sets and industry innovation.

The next-generation workforce and next-generation work practices will be dramatically transformed and influenced by the next phase of technological evolution. All companies will need to meet these new challenges in strategic corporate real estate portfolio planning and greater workplace innovation to support evolving and disruptive business models — some of which are yet to be created.

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Originally published at weforum.org.