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The rise of machines

May 16, 2017 Business News No Comments Email Email

Across the world, workers are fascinated, perplexed and sometimes fearful about the impact that machines will have on their jobs. Firms face tension as a result of technological developments such as the increasing use of artificial intelligence in data analysis and decision-making, or robotics displacing and augmenting skilled production tasks, revolutionising the work of even the most specialised employees.

Machines as decision makers?

According to Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, the role of decision-making as a uniquely human skill is coming under increasing pressure. The constant march of robotics and Machine Learning and the ‘hollowing out of work’ makes management and decision-making a more and more unclear practice. She says:

“A growing body of research is providing essential insights into how machines can make better decisions than humans. A recent analysis concluded that equations outperform human applicant-selection decisions by 25%, though research indicates that most individuals and organisations are still reluctant to let machines make the final call. Whether diagnosing patients or forecasting political outcomes, people still consistently prefer human judgment to algorithms.”

While it is difficult at this point to draw firm conclusions about exactly how each technology trend will affect work in the future, Professor Gratton explores how organisations can improve adaptability by considering a number of changes to their work models:

Bridging broken career ladders

“The impact of the removal of swathes of middle level roles through automation in the last twenty years is becoming apparent as junior associates struggle to find the next incremental step to the top,” says Professor Gratton. “Re-defining what progression looks like in an organisation will be essential in addressing this challenge.”

Encouraging life-long learning

Waves of technological disruption mean that entire job categories and skill sets may become redundant or less valuable within a short time, as machines replace and augment work. This means that the current approach of front-loaded education, and only incremental development of skill sets over time may no longer be sufficient.

“In its place we are already seeing an emphasis on life-long learning that must be supported by an organisation, either through access to training, or time off for people to re-skill. A possible solution both for individuals and organisations comes from online, competency-based education that combines content on multiple subjects and skill sets, enabling people to tailor a course that delivers exactly the training they need, at low or no cost, and at times that suit them.”

Partnering with machines

The strategy that will work in the long term is to view machines as our partners in knowledge work. This more rational take on the future reframes the situation quite drastically from a challenge of managing job losses to an opportunity of augmenting and supporting employees’ day-to-day activities.

With this more pragmatic view comes a chance to work out what great feats workers can accomplish with the assistance of robotic co-workers, explore cases in which workers can collaborate with machines to do things that neither could do well on their own, and understand what kinds of new jobs might be created.

In this way, contrary to today’s worst fears, machines could enable the rise, not the downfall, of the knowledge worker.

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