15 September 2016 | By James Woudhuysen
Most of the literature on the future of work hasn't changed much in years: mobile working, working from home, hot-desking, teams, fun interiors to stimulate creativity, etc.
In fact many of these issues first emerged in the stimulating work of Philip J Stone and Robert Luchetti, if not in the equally stimulating discussion of 'adhocracy' by the late Alvin Toffler.
The basic error in contemporary accounts is to believe that IT, or space, will determine the future of work. IT vendors, facilities managers and architects like to convince one of this. Yet in fact it's management and workers that determine life at work, and in that domain - HR, psychology - the changes are much deeper, and much less noticed, than those in IT and space. The 360-degree appraisal, how to manage your manager, not winding up in court because of duty of care responsibilities, not being seen to let your mates down, acting up (but with no increase in salary) - these are the really important departures.
Utilisation, not automation
However, in line with the deterministic outlook mentioned above, the view now - repeated breathlessly in newspaper articles almost every day - is that robots, and IT generally, will destroy jobs. The kick-off piece (2013) is by the Oxford Martin Institute, where two teenage scribblers suggested that 47 per cent of US jobs were “at risk” because of automation. Since then (2015), the institute has teamed up with Citi to say this will happen in “perhaps a decade or two” or “soon”.
Careful inspection of those papers, and others like them, shows that the authors understand very little about IT, still less about 'intelligence', the Luddites, etc. Nor do they seem to have noticed that unemployment is at very low levels in the US and the UK, as well as in other parts of the Europe. The main thing to remember is that we have an investment and productivity crisis in the West, not a crisis of what John Maynard Keynes termed, in his Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren (1930), technological unemployment.
Breakthroughs are happening in fields such as wearables, machine learning, virtual reality, voice operation, translation, 3D printing and other domains, including underestimated ones such as printed and structural electronics. But they are not happening in intelligence, and arguably never will, whatever the wins at games registered by IBM's Watson and DeepMind's AlphaGo. For example, construction of the massive datasets of pictures and speech that comprise machine learning does not amount to building real intelligence - the sort that can handle non-routine cognitive and manual tasks or do unsupervised learning. Nor can machine learning recall episodic memories or do unsupervised learning.
As for the Internet of Things, the evidence to date is that its definition is blurry, its consumer applications relatively trivial, and its industrial applications expensive, slow to develop, and marred by organisational incompatibilities. In my view, the industrial Internet of Things is more about sweating assets and postponing relatively trivial investments in maintenance and repair than it is yet about sweeping improvements in productivity.
Still, it's vital to keep track of advances in these smaller fields, both to log the pace of advance and to appreciate the barriers to take-up.
Until these breakthroughs take place, and are coordinated in a brilliant manner, the pattern in the West will be greater labour utilisation, not automation. Increases in female employment, self-employment, EU immigration and working hours are significant trends in the UK, and the addition of older and Hispanic workers is striking in the US. Of course, a President Trump would likely bring a slump, and, in turn, mass unemployment - but most likely the joblessness created would not be technological unemployment.
Despite the trend toward greater labour use, there's no need to join the Guardian narrative about everyone being stressed out at work, or the Cherie Blair narrative about work-life balance. Rather, the following priorities emerge:
1. Invest with a cold eye in the very best, productivity-raising capex, facilities and IT. In IT, as far back as 2012, in a 184-page report, McKinsey showed that, applied in the world of business, social media can improve not just communications inside and beyond a company, but also productivity, new product development (NPD) and relationships with customers.
2. Again with a cold eye, avoid psychobabble at work including mumbo-jumbo about emotional intelligence, mindfulness and all the rest. Do not indulge the youth and patronise old people by buying that 'digital natives'/'digital immigrants' story.
3. Do, however, spend more time on the shop floor. If labour utilisation is stretching people a lot, it's all the more necessary to become a cleaner for a day (at least).
4. Perhaps above all, recognise that just as a visit prompts a call, a call prompts a visit. IT can supplement human contact, but cannot replace it. In particular, what I described 12 years ago as the productivity of the face - its expressiveness, its ability to convey both emotions and the logic of an argument - can work wonders.
5. The important conversations with clients often happen in corridors, stairwells, revolving doors, reception areas, corporate gyms and loos - not just on the phone, in a videoconference or even in a meeting room. Get every aspect of your physical facilities right, deliver more than what you promise in that domain - and business will come to you again and again.
In IT, an old slogan was 'Rubbish in, rubbish out'. It is we human beings who create and adapt technology. It never leads a life on its own. The human brain, heart, soul and our social intercourse contour IT, and the future of work, more than IT will ever do.
James Woudhuysen is visiting professor at London South Bank University. Claims to fame include helping to install Britain's first computer-controlled car park - www.woudhuysen.com