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These 3 Technological Forces That Are Changing The Nature Of Work

2017 April 16

Work used to be pretty simple. You got up in the morning, did your job and came home at the end of the day. Most people spent their whole career doing pretty much the same thing for the same employer. They were judged by their skill, diligence and seniority and, at the end of it all, they looked forward to a peaceful retirement.

Today, those seem like quaint notions. Nobody spends an entire career doing the same job the same way anymore. In fact, a recent study at Oxford found that as many as almost half of the jobs in the US are at risk of being automated. A report by Deloitte also finds that technology is significantly changing how organizations function.

These trends are often attributed to artificial intelligence and machine learning, but that misses a huge part of the story. The truth is that the real shift has less to do with any single branch of information technology and more to do with how three digital forces are beginning to pervade everything else. As it turns out, our digital future is all too human.

1. Acceleration

In The Second Machine Age, MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson  and Andrew McAfee tell a story about the invention of chess. As legend has it, the emperor was so impressed with the game that he invited its creator to name his reward.  The inventor’s request seemed modest, he simply told the Emperor:

‘All I desire is some rice to feed my family.’ Since the emperor’s largess was spurred by the invention of chess, the inventor suggested they use the chessboard to determine the amount of rice he would be given. ‘Place one single grain of rice on the first square of the board, two on the second, four on the third, and so on,’ the inventor proposed, ‘so that each square receives twice as many grains as the previous.’

For the first half of the chessboard, the emperor had to pay 232 grains of rice, or about the equivalent of one field, but as the doubling continued, the total amount owed far exceeded all the rice that existed in the world. That, in essence, is the concept of accelerating returns. When growth is exponential, even seemingly insignificant trends can become predominant.

This phenomenon is commonly known as Moore’s Law, the observation that Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made about the continuous doubling of transistors on a microchip, but it’s grown far beyond that. Today, as digital technology pervades everything else, we can see similar trends in everything from solar panels to gene sequencing.

2. Democratization

The decades after World War II saw a number of technological revolutions. During the 1950s and 60s, the discovery of the genetic code and nuclear energy, the rise of digital computing and humanity’s first forays into space all became realities. These achievements, unimaginable to previous generations, created completely new realms of possibility.

It was also an era of increasing scale. Companies mass produced products that were mass marketed to mass markets. Corporate strategy focused on wringing ever more efficiency out of the value chain, because lowering your cost basis meant that you could reinvest in assets that would create even more efficiency and unlock a virtuous cycle.

Those days are now over. Competitive advantage in a networked age is no longer the sum of all efficiencies, but the sum of all connections. To take just one example, consider the IBM 360 series of computers which dominated the 60s and 70s. It was vertically integrated and every piece of hardware and software had to come from IBM. Today, however, its Bluemix cloud computing platform is built on top of open source software and offers services from competitors.

The reason why is that now even the resources of a massive organization like IBM aren’t enough to compete anymore. So unless it can tap into the talents of thousands of developers across the world and make its technology accessible enough to allow others to build products on top of it, the company would fall behind its rivals.

This trend is constantly reducing the technical knowledge you need to create with technology. Want to build a website? Platforms like Wix will have you up and running in minutes. Want to build a mobile app with artificial intelligence capabilities? Platforms like Mendix are so simple even those with no coding expertise can get in on the action.

3. Convergence

The final force shaping technology today is convergence. A computer is no longer something in a room somewhere doing calculations for back office functions like payroll or inventory, or even a smaller machine that sits on a desk to help automate basic office work. Today, computing is more like electricity, an invisible force used to power other machines.

Moreover, the ubiquity and abundance of computing is what’s enabling the new technologies that are driving the 21st century, such as genomics, nanotechnology and robotics. These, in turn, are driving transformational change in scientific labs, factory floors and marketplaces.

IBM’s Angel Diaz observes that this convergence has had a profound effect on the computing industry. “To truly change the world today we need more than just clever code. We need computer scientists working with cancer scientists, with climate scientists and with experts in many other fields to tackle grand challenges and make large impacts on the world,” he says.

But the impact is even larger on other industries. As the bits of computer code pervade the atoms of our workplaces, we’re increasingly living in an automated age and the nature of work is becoming less about performing tasks and more about using technology to collaborate with other people.

Moving From Disruption To Collaboration

Let’s return to where we began. Work used to be fairly stable because technology was fairly stable. Products changed with the times, but mostly because of changing tastes and styles. Functionality evolved slowly, which allowed business to maintain their business models for decades and, in some cases, even longer.

Yet business models no longer last. The twin forces of acceleration and democratization made it possible for a couple of guys in a garage somewhere to compete with the world’s most powerful corporations. All of a sudden, the American dream morphed from getting a corner office in an executive suite to building a startup and achieving a billion dollar valuation.

The future, however, belongs to the third trend, convergence. As digital technology seeps into every product, service and endeavor, no one organization has all the skills and knowledge it needs to compete and collaboration itself is becoming a competitive advantage.

That, in turn, is changing the nature of work. To win in the new economy, you no longer need the best people, you need the best teams. Value is shifting from those who can perform tasks efficiently to those who can work with others to design jobs for machines, which means that we now need to hire, manage and train for new skills, such as empathy and social sensitivity.

As automation produces ever greater abundance, humanity itself is becoming the scarce, and therefore most valuable, resource.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in

13 Responses
  1. Michael Breeden permalink
    April 16, 2017

    I thought a couple weeks ago you said automation won’t be such a big thing.
    What I said a few months ago and will paraphrase now it your technological based visions of unending growth, grandeur and power are… how can I put this politely… silly… because you don’t consider a human element in them. Your “democratization” is all about companies. You didn’t mention humans. You have the instincts of a craftsman, scribe and merchant, but no instincts of a priest. There are no people in your equation.
    Look, you read the same things I read about automation and robots. You know that the people are not going to find new jobs like when teamsters went from driving teams of horses to driving trucks. You know that. Most people don’t have the intellectual potential to become coders, engineers or entrapenuers and if they could, they would be competing with former lawyers, accountants and doctors that started out with a more robust intellect Your system is an extension of the current system which is reaching the end of its functionality. The last election proved that… The economically disenfranchised voted…. and there is just going to be more of them as time goes on. I used to study the causes of peasant revolts, but their ontogeny was trivial to what is happening now. I love your marketing ideas, but who are you going to market to when no none has a job? Your corporations? Honestly, I think you and a lot of other techno hot dogs need a new plan… and if you do, I doubt it will be in the ball park… At least you are thinking about it some, but you are still not on the playing field and you know it. The automation projections are coming out fast, pessimistic and getting more pessimistic… and that isn’t where the worst problem lies.
    Respectfully, Miguelito

    Casey Baker Reply:

    Miguelito, I think you bring up some good issues here that will require some drastic societal changes to fix. In an era of ever increasing productivity coupled with less and less reliance on human labor, how will the masses compete?

    I would be really interested to hear what solutions you might be considering? Universal Basic Income? Automation Taxation? I think Greg’s post was more narrowly focused than some of the ongoing societal unrest that you bring up, but this is an interesting area to explore. The future of work will not look like the 40 hr. workweek for 35 years and then pension supported retirement. For better or for worse, that reality is vanishing quickly (as you point out). I would be interested to hear about what possible solutions could be implemented before it is too late.

    Michael Breeden Reply:

    Greetings Casey,
    The main point is that it is not about automation. You cannot solve the problem of automation without realizing that it is only one related problem in a huge collection of problems that we have been putting together since we started agriculture and cities. All the problems are related and all the solutions must be related as well. That is why I get bummed out when people look for technological solutions to all problems. Technology can solve many problems, but the ones that are left over will be more important and they rarely seem to be noticed.
    You ask about Universal Income and seem to see it as an economic problem. It is, but occasionally, a few people have said the problem with automation is about Identity that we get from our occupations. … — very good article on automation.
    I point out that the losses go deeper and what is also lost with a job is status, something older than humans and an important component of our reproductive instincts. Actually, I think I know how to solve the economic problem. Make one not very painful change to current “tax” law. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but I also think that it might a simple key.
    The thing is that I look at the issue as far more complicated than economics. The key to human survival is our strategy. We need a new one. We call it morality and unfortunately the most basic ones we have mostly from history and religion based on authority and precedent, but they can no longer be defended. We need moral strategies based on reason and understanding now or they will not be used. Yeah.. I know… “Huh?” Well it’s true and our moral instincts are telling us we are in trouble. Ask a person if we are in a moral crisis and they will say yes, because their instincts know. That is my next project. A new completely approach to survival strategy. I’ve been working on it for decades.
    Now there is another one of those related problems and it’s a doozy. It’s also sort of my specialty and that is genetics. What we call human progress has been the removal of natural selection. Natural selection is the mechanism that keeps our genes healthy. Because we have so reduced Natural Selection, we are headed for a genetic disaster from a constantly increasing birth defect and infertility rate. I just published a book on that called Genetics For A New Human Ecology. The eBook is on Amazon, but I just got back the paper proof from editing and got chewed out pretty well. Still, she said she got the idea. May I recommend it. It is a very short read for decades of work, but that is the great accomplishment of the book. If you read it, I think you may get an idea of the dimensions of the problem as I see it and hopefully you will like my solution for it..

    Casey Baker Reply:

    Thanks Michael, you lay a lot out there in this. I look forward to learning more about some of the ideas you describe.

    Greg Satell Reply:

    I never said automation wouldn’t be a big deal or anything like it. What I have written in the past, in several articles, is that technology is used to extend humans, not replace them. To the best of my knowledge, there is no substantial evidence to the contrary.

    – Greg

    Michael Breeden Reply:

    Well Greg, I know that in some industries that has been clearly the result, robots extending the capability of humans, but I think that replacement will actually be far more common. The evidence I offer is both the recent election and the simplest question, what will happen to all the jobs occupied by drivers? We are talking a lot of jobs. The “self driving car” companies have already given up on a mix with a human “supervisor”, because their engineers just seem to fall asleep in the cars. They were not extended, they were completely replaced. I tend to refer back also to the welders of the automotive assembly lines, because that was a very early case and a good example. They were replaced. What I read in articles is about widespread replacement, not augmentation. You will read about augmentation occasionally in articles about companies, but I think I can say it is the exception rather than the rule and even when it provides augmentation, there is likely to be partial replacement. The legal profession is a good example as is the travel agent industry, secretaries and switchboard operators. Now one person does the job of many. There will simply be fewer and fewer jobs and what jobs there will be will be intellectually beyond most people’s capability… Yes, I mean that. Training will not solve that problem.
    Just tell me about the drivers. I think it is expected that three million of them could be replaced in two decades. They are not going to be extended unless their job is to sleep most of the time.
    Is that enough evidence?

    Greg Satell Reply:

    The future is always difficult to predict, but there are far more jobs today than there were 10 or 20 years ago. Even in specific industries, like banking, where it seemed assured that jobs would eliminated by automation, jobs have been created. In fact, there are more than twice as many bank tellers today than there were before ATM’s came into widespread use.

    What seems to happen is that when a particular task is automated, it becomes commoditized and value shifts elsewhere. There is a problem with income inequality, becomes there is no guarantee that the new jobs pay as much as the old ones, but machines replacing humans doesn’t seem to be happening.

    – Greg

  2. April 16, 2017

    Great post. I think your last sentence is the most salient. Acceleration and democratization has come so far that even innovation has to be thought about differently. Exponentially increased efficiency and production has made it that the only remaining scarce resource is human attention. AI and other technology have created a world of abundance (for some), but there are still only so many hours in a day and years in a lifetime. I think technology driven collaboration is now not only developing networks between employees but also blurring the lines between employees and customers.

    Greg Satell Reply:

    Very true! Thanks Casey.

    – Greg

  3. Robert Lewis permalink
    April 18, 2017

    “… the only remaining scarce resource is human attention.” Brilliant definition and so right! Look at the ‘human service’ from the average ‘help line’. Pure garbage.

    Greg Satell Reply:

    Thx Robert:-)

  4. May 4, 2017

    En route to this digital nirvana I think the third age of which you speak will actually require a bunch of people who don’t at this moment exist in sufficient numbers to do the work required.

    This digital skills gap will not result in a stagnation of innovation, rather concentrate in small clusters – which are the ‘teams’ you speak of – capable of picking up new skills, learning emerging technologies and implementing them.

    Great article Greg – hence the lively debate – which was also well worth a read.

    Greg Satell Reply:

    Thanks Henry. Great point about teams!

    – Greg

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