Man vs machine – what does the future of work hold?

Artificial intelligence and automation are undeniably transforming how work gets done

However, these new technologies are likely to prompt elements of jobs to change rather than cause them to go away. And as automation and AI transform the way work gets done, the challenge will be managing the human implications.

Once the decision has been made to adopt automation and AI, leaders face difficult and stubborn questions about how to implement that decision – “How, when, and where should we apply automation in our organizations?” No longer is the debate limited to the stark choice between humans versus machines. Today, progressive managers know that automation will substitute human labour for some tasks while augmenting human labour for others and, in many instances, create new types of human work.

Leaders need a new set of tools to navigate this more nuanced and complex environment. As the concept of a static, immutable job gives way to ever more agile ways of getting work done, new and ever varied combinations of humans and machines will emerge. Smart leaders are already optimizing human-automation combinations that are not only more efficient or effective, but are significantly more impactful.

The engine behind the change

Technologies that enhance human capabilities and allow workers to provide a wider range of services remotely and with greater efficiency and productivity have been around for decades. But, work and the workplace are now changing faster than ever, increasingly uninhibited by geographical boundaries and inspired by the arrival of robots and new technologies previously available only through the pages of science fiction.

While still in their infancy, automation and AI are unparalleled in the speed and scale at which they are changing the workplace. The use of workplace automation is expected to nearly double in the next three years according to Willis Towers Watson’s 2017 Global Future of Work Survey. While survey respondents report that 12% of work is currently being done using AI and robotics versus just 7% three years ago, they anticipate that this figure will rise to 22% in the next three years.

The light at the end of the tunnel 

At the intersection of all of these emerging ideas and realities is the need to think differently about how we will connect people to work. This will involve a radical rethink of skills, that fundamental building block of work

The first challenge is to define it in a way that is agile and built for change. This involves thinking beyond the static skills libraries of the past and considering how we might access a “real time” inventory of skills with that combine both curated and user-generated content. Picture the concept of a Wikipedia for skills – that is constantly being updated by users and experts.

The next challenge involves connecting skills to the supply and demand sides of the work equation. This means tagging positions, tasks or opportunities with the requisite skills and creating a space or profile where people can tag their own skills and will (i.e., their interests, preferences, long-term goals, etc.) in a secure environment where they be verified by third parties and seamlessly updated. Think of the possibilities that might emanate from using blockchain to enable such an environment

The final challenge will be to match people to work, ideally based on an algorithm that compares skill and will on a continuous basis while suggesting reskilling opportunities to ensure the continued relevance of talent in an ever-changing world of work.

Imagine participating in an ecosystem with AI at its heart, continuously matching the various types of work within your organization (jobs, projects, gigs, etc.) to the most capable talent both within and outside your organization. All the while sending signals to your pool of talent about how demand for various skills is trending up or down and connecting them to the development opportunities that meet their unique needs.

Progressive organizations are reinventing jobs. They are deconstructing jobs, identifying opportunities to redeploy the component tasks to the most optimal solution (AI, robotics, talent on online marketplaces, etc.) and reconstructing new, more uniquely human positions. All the while providing their talent with insight into the demand for various skills and opportunities to reskill themselves to ensure their continued relevance.

About the Author

Ravin Jesuthasan is Managing Director, Willis Towers Watson and author of the upcoming book; Reinventing Jobs (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018). Ravin Jesuthasan is a recognized global thought leader and author on the future of work and human capital.  He has led numerous research efforts on the global workforce, the emerging digital economy, the rise of artificial intelligence and the transformation of work. Ravin has lead numerous research projects for the World Economic Forum including its ground breaking study; Shaping the Future Implications of Digital Media for Society and the recently launched Creating a Shared Vision for Talent in the 4th Industrial Revolution. He is a regular participant and presenter at the World Economic Forum’s annual meetings in Davos and Dalian/Tianjin and is a member of the forum’s Steering Committee on Work and Employment.