Scenario planning: The future of workplace technology

Rob Gray presents three possible future scenarios for work in an increasingly tech-dominated world

The ascendancy of machines and dystopian worlds under the control of computers are recurrent themes in the sci-fi canon. Think of the nightmarish technology-turned-nasty plots of The Terminator and The Matrix. Or 40-year-old cult movie Logan’s Run, which portrays a futuristic society in which humans lead hedonistic lifestyles while a computer looks after their needs, with one glaring downside: to ensure the population does not grow beyond the resources available to support it humans are exterminated when they turn 30.

Sci-fi aficionados will be able to cite countless other examples of films, books and TV shows in which the machines have taken over. It’s a subject with huge dramatic possibilities. But as technology in the real-world advances at breakneck speed, it is increasingly an issue for the workplace and society more widely to consider. Ideally, with more positive consequences.

We now live in an age where the average smartphone is vastly more powerful than the supercomputers NASA had at its disposal for the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. The rise of the web, cloud computing, the internet of things and many other technological leaps have reshaped our world and will continue to do so at great speed in the not so distant future.

Where once employment concerns related to automation centred predominantly on the loss of jobs on the production line, today many other types of job are potentially at risk – in the services sector as well as manufacturing. The emergence of drones and driverless cars is just one area of change among many with the potential to drive ‘technological unemployment’.

To what extent is an employee’s knowledge of processes a match for a sophisticated algorithm? When is a person more or less useful than a machine or software program?

Organisations will increasingly have to wrestle with questions of this kind amid fears of being disrupted and perhaps overwhelmed by more agile, tech-savvy competitors. Where will this lead? Of course, no one can predict the future with certainty. But the following scenarios offer food for thought – whether you’re human, or a curious form of artificial intelligence (AI) with career ambitions…

1. Low speed of development, slow user uptake, high government intervention

The so-called ‘hollowing out’ of medium-skilled work will continue, with people increasingly taking on more complex and specialist jobs if they are to remain relevant in the workplace and an asset to their employer. But in this scenario, the proliferation of robotics, AI and other technological solutions is not as great as some experts envisage.

Last year, analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch forecast that the global market for robots and AI would top $150 billion by 2020, putting many low-paid, manual and service jobs at high risk of replacement. Needless to say, this is only a projection and the hollowing out of jobs may not occur nearly so rapidly.

Developments in automation could well hit more technical and cultural stumbling blocks than currently foreseen. Perhaps of greater significance is the appetite of businesses to commit to major innovation that delivers a negative impact on headcount. Resistance to change and concerns about the ramifications of technology-led redundancies on the morale of workforce ‘remainers’ and corporate reputation may dampen demand and slow uptake among organisations.

On top of this, the political fallout of technology-induced unemployment may encourage governments to adopt an interventionist approach in order to appease voters and boost their electoral prospects. “It could be possible for governments, through regulation or fiscal policy, to slow down development and uptake,” says Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School and author of The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here. “The most obvious example would be driverless cars. These will put millions of people out of work across the world and some governments may try to build barriers to this.”

One interesting consideration here is that different national governments may conceivably adopt markedly different approaches. While some countries could adopt interventionist policies to safeguard jobs, others may be more inclined towards a laissez-faire stance that champions free market competition.

How likely… To a large degree, dependent on government policy. But at least some of this is likely to occur.

When by… Under five years.

2. Medium technology development, high user uptake

In his book Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will, Geoff Colvin writes: “As technology takes over more of our work while simultaneously changing us and the way we relate to one another, the people who master the human abilities that are fading all around us will be the most valuable people in our world.”

It is a wonderful point, with a lot of truth. Talent with outstanding people and leadership skills will continue to thrive.

But Colvin also refers to Moore’s Law, the rough rule of thumb that technology doubles in power every two years. At that rate, he writes, computing power increases by a factor of a million in 40 years. Yet as technology visionary Bill Joy likes to point out, jet travel is faster than walking by a factor of one hundred, and that has changed the world. We are, therefore, argues Colvin, utterly unprepared to grasp a factor of a million. So even at the current rate of development, technology will incontrovertibly bring about massive changes.

“One of the interesting issues is how quickly people will benefit from technological developments through ‘augmentation’ of their work,” says Gratton. “If, for example, corporations, managers and workers embraced virtual technologies and made the most of the promise of AI and robotics – then productivity could rise and creativity and innovation would be enhanced through future technological developments.”

However, this does call for understanding and action at the very top of the tree – something that is lacking from many boardrooms, according to futurist and advisor to C-suite executives Pat Chapman-Pincher. In her report March of the Robots...Into the Boardroom, Chapman-Pincher found many UK companies to be woefully unprepared to deal with the rise of intelligent automation.

Chapman-Pincher’s research identified a worrying lack of skills at board and senior management levels; a disconnect between those implementing intelligent automation and the executive teams and boards; and little understanding of how intelligent automation will change business. As well as calling for more people who relish change and understand technology to be appointed to boards, she urges: “They also need to start thinking now about how they bring robots or algorithms into boardroom decision-making.”

How likely… Very.

When by… Already beginning to happen now.

3. High speed of tech development, mixed user uptake, low government intervention

Martin Ford’s influential 2015 book The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment warns that “nearly any white-collar job that involves sitting in front of a computer manipulating information” is at risk of being automated out of the existence. While, at the same time, new industries that spring up will “rarely if ever” be labour-intensive. More likely, as per many of Silicon Valley’s recent success stories, they will be companies that command high stock market valuations while employing relatively tiny workforces.

Should this come to pass the upshot, as Ford’s subtitle makes resoundingly clear, would be mass unemployment.

“I really do believe that many, perhaps most, ‘earn a living’ jobs will be able to be automated out of existence over the next 10-30 years, with huge increases in structural unemployment,” says Naomi Bloom, managing partner at Bloom & Wallace, an expert in HRM and technology. “That said, taxing the means of production – treating robots and process automation as ‘plant and equipment’ in the old-fashioned sense of that phrase – could provide sufficient funds to support all of us, and high levels of automation and robotics could provide an abundance of goods and services. But how on earth would we keep people productive, engaged, and striving?”

For Bloom, a population of couch potatoes staring into their AR devices to pass the time is a bleak prospect. She is far from alone in worrying about how the unemployed would fill their days.

“This is the scenario, described recently to me by the head of one of the technology companies, where technology ‘liberates’ people from work,” says Gratton. “Liberated from work, it’s not clear what people would do and there would have to be a massive redistribution of wealth towards these groups.”

In his book, Ford proposes a guaranteed baseline income – but one that incentivises education. This kind of support and encouragement would, he believes, stimulate the entrepreneurialism of knowledge workers.

But what if there were no provisions made to support the swathes of newly unemployed? Perhaps we would be looking at the extreme polarisation of society. At a new hi-tech version of the Middle Ages, where the middle class does not exist- rather just elite barons and queens of automation safely housed in wealthy fortresses, and the dispossessed neo-peasantry, placated by gadgets dispatched in their direction like scraps thrown from a lavish table. A terrifying dystopian future indeed.

How likely… Impossible to rule out.

When by… 10-20 years.