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Rick Lash of the Korn Ferry Hay Group.
Rick Lash of the Korn Ferry Hay Group.

LEADERSHIP LAB

Technology and markets are driving employment in the right direction Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

In 1589, inventor William Lee developed a knitting machine to produce stockings, only to be refused a patent by Queen Elizabeth out of her concern that it would put her subjects out of work.

Fast forward 500 years. The first reported death of a person driving a Tesla on auto-pilot has just been reported. Tragic in itself, the astounding advances in artificial intelligence, sensor technology and computing power is having a profound impact not only on people who love to drive, but on everyone in the value chain, from those in the auto manufacturing industry right through to drivers and policy makers who are finding that technology has outpaced laws that couldn’t conceive the world we now live in.

There is little doubt that the world of work is changing faster than ever before. Two forces in particular – technology and financial markets – are having a profound impact on work and the future of employment.

A 2013 research study by the University of Oxford found that, over the next two decades, nearly 50 per cent of all jobs are at risk due to computerization, making it harder for people to find work in the traditional sense. Manufacturing and logistics, office support administrators and manual production occupations are predicted to be replaced by computers over the next 20 years.

But it doesn’t stop there. Rapid advances in artificial intelligence and robotics are creating machines that are capable of competently performing many non-routine cognitive tasks and are encroaching on service domains normally reserved for the human mind. Affective computing (yes, that exists) is helping to create the next wave of household robots that can not only competently perform caretaking tasks, but can read emotions and respond appropriately. I just purchased a brain-reading headband that provides instant feedback on how well I’m meditating based on my brain waves. Who needs to pay a guru?

Harnessing data and applying it to continuously improve manufacturing processes and products is another way organizations are creatively using technology to be more efficient and relevant to the market. Companies like GE are creating Smart Factories, using the information collected by millions of sensors in machines like aircraft engines, manufacturing equipment, turbines and even car charging electrical outlets to improve efficiencies and drive profitability.

Technology is certainly one driving force that is changing the future of work by replacing jobs with increasingly intelligent machines, making companies more efficient, flexible and most importantly, more profitable to run. The other is how companies are now making money.

For knowledge-based powerhouse companies like Google, Apple, Twitter, payroll and benefits represent the largest costs.

Although almost every organization will say something like “people are our greatest asset”, the reality of the past several decades is that people, like any other asset, can be a company’s greatest liability when it comes to driving up shareholder value. Want to raise profits and increase a company’s stock price? Two quick fixes: either buy your own stock (creating greater demand and less supply on the market) or downsize.

The best way to achieve higher profits is ensuring maximum flexibility in the workforce so the organization can adapt to rapidly changing market needs. Having a more flexible employee pool that you can hire and furlough depending on business demands is one way to manage risk.

If technology and new finance-driven business models are fundamentally altering the future of jobs and work, what’s a new graduate (or an older worker) to do? All is not hopeless, and in fact there is indeed a silver lining, if one knows where to look.

Companies like Uber are figuring it out, at least for now. The same technology that is replacing workers with intelligent robots (on the shop floor or as an app on your smartphone) is also being used to create new models of generating wealth. Whether you are a bank driving growth through new on-line channels, a streaming music company designing creative new ways for consumers to subscribe, or an entrepreneur raising capital online for a new invention, key skills stand out as differentiators for success.

Organizations are flatter, work gets done in multi-skilled teams and leaders serve more as facilitators than managers. Those same teams not only are diverse in terms of skill sets, but also in background and culture. The ability to share power with others, take direction from peers and be curious enough to understand how people work differently across cultural divides are essential. These skills are critical because, unlike organizations of the past which relied on economies of scale and standardization to survive, today’s organizations face immensely complex challenges in a diverse global economy. They must be agile and use technology and data to rapidly adapt and get product to market faster than ever before. But technology will only take organizations so far. Even ‘old world’ corporations like GE are struggling with making Smart Factories work because culture and the social and emotional capabilities of their people need development as well.

William Lee, if transported to 2016, would be in awe of today’s world but, after a short while, I suspect he would begin to see something familiar. Although his ideas were perhaps ahead of his time, his passion and vision, creativity and ability to influence others would give him confidence that, indeed, the world is headed in the right direction.

Rick Lash is a senior client partner with the Korn Ferry Hay Group leadership and talent practice in Toronto. He is also a registered psychologist and a certified coach, working with senior executives globally.

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