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The future of work: How to thrive through IT’s latest revolution

The future of work: How to thrive through IT’s latest revolution

A seismic shakeup of the workplace is under way, as emerging technologies and employment dynamics are reshaping workforces and organizations alike. Here’s how to keep ahead of the changes.

Five years from now, your workplace will be completely unrecognizable compared to today. That’s an easy prediction to make, given how rapidly changing technology, markets and employment dynamics are reshaping organizations. But what will those differences actually look like? And which of today’s new technologies will have the biggest impact on the future?

“Technology is going to change the workforce,” says David Burns, senior vice president and CIO of manufacturing and supply chain at GE. “As IT professionals, we need to figure out how to apply that technology to make people’s lives more efficient and manage changing demographics and changes within our industries.”

Here are some of the biggest changes Burns and other experts foresee.

1. Skills will matter less than the ability to learn new ones

According to Deloitte research, the “half-life” of a job skill dropped from 30 years to 5 years between 1984 and 2014 — and it’s continued dropping since. In the future, the most valuable employees in IT (and elsewhere) will not be those who’ve spent years acquiring complex skills such as data analysis or software development. They will be those who are willing and eager to constantly retrain throughout their careers so they always have the skills your organization needs most.

Kim Smith, venture strategist and chief innovation officer at IBM, likens such employees to the early NASA employees portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures. Back then, “computer” was a job title, not a piece of office equipment, and it was the job held by the movie’s central characters. Then NASA acquired a mainframe capable of replacing a building full of human computers “so they taught themselves Fortran,” Smith says.

To be successful in the future, your company must support, encourage and enable lifelong retooling. At IBM, it means giving people access to training and allowing them to rotate in and out of jobs and departments, she explains. “They can be in one role for a period of time, then go to something completely different.”

“I think expectations are going to morph,” Burns adds. “Tech professionals need to be more forward thinking. A lot of the ones I’ve seen were order takers, and we have to get away from that world. We have to help disrupt industries rather than letting our organizations be disrupted.” To make that happen, he says, “You’re going to see functional experts getting more technically savvy and IT experts become more functionally savvy.”

It will also mean making some tough decisions when faced with employees who can’t or won’t learn new skills or adapt to changing needs. “You can have someone who’s top-tier and technically capable,” Smith says. “But if they’re entrenched and inflexible and their EQ [emotional intelligence quotient] is not wired to be OK with change and failure, that one individual can be toxic to the organization as a whole.”

2. Artificial intelligence and automation will change most jobs

According to Deloitte research, 57 percent of today’s jobs are vulnerable to replacement by automation. Tech executives report that robotic process automation (in which software is deployed to perform repetitive tasks) could affect millions of jobs right now.

“Forty-five percent of present-day activities could be automated using technology we already have,” Smith says. “That could affect at least 100 million knowledge workers by 2025. So for those organizations that are really dependent on repetitive processes, where are they going to capture efficiency gains to stay competitive? And how will they retrain their people to take on other skills and capabilities?”

Beyond automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning (in which computers using algorithms combined with large data sets learn to make decisions faster and sometimes better than humans can) will remake workplaces as we know them. It might happen sooner than you think. “AI has been on everyone’s horizon for a while. But in our world view, 2018 will be the first year that it gets real,” says Pat Ryan, chief architect for technology consulting firm SPR in Chicago. “We are looking at client companies who actually want to do something with it.”

“Radiologists are not reading all the images they used to,” says William Tanenbaum, co-head of the technology transactions practice at New York law firm Arent Fox. “AI can read an x-ray better than a doctor, or at least read it for 77 hours without rest, and can allow the doctor to do better things faster.”

He and other experts insist that the advent of AI in the workplace will change jobs — making them more enjoyable — rather than eliminate them. Ryan, for instance, suggests the term “artificial intelligence” should be replaced by “augmented intelligence” because that’s what AI will do — augment the capabilities of knowledge workers.

“What does an exponential IT worker look like?” asks Jeff Schwartz, human capital principal at Deloitte Consulting. “What part of her work is problem solving? How much is routine? What communication is required in her job? What supervision is required?” If she oversees several people, consider what that oversight might entail, he says. “Is it scheduling a bunch of people, which could be done by algorithm, or is it people talking and seeing and interacting with each other?” With automation, the scheduling function could be handled by a chatbot. Our hypothetical IT employee might still hold a daily meeting with her team, but now they could spend that time solving work problems or discussing priorities.

“I look at it and say there’s an opportunity to boost productivity,” Burns says. “In general, I don’t think people like doing mundane tasks. They genuinely want to focus on adding value and these machines help them add more value than they could on their own.”

One way AI can add a lot of value, he says, is by helping humans figure out where to focus their attention. “The amount of information available in the workplace is growing faster than people can manage and they feel overwhelmed. Some artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies will help cut through the clutter.”

3. Your future workforce will be very different from today’s

One obvious force driving the adoption of AI and automation is the current tight market for skilled labor, especially when it comes to sought-after tech skills such as data analytics. But Schwartz believes that companies currently struggling to hire talent are struggling because of entrenched ideas about what employment is and isn’t.

“Maybe there’s a talent crunch and maybe there’s not,” he says. “Maybe the talent crunch is the result of looking for expertise in our backyards and in our own offices. Companies are looking to hire people to work in their buildings in the same way they’ve worked before.”

Instead, he says, employers need to broaden their view of what their workforce is. Deloitte predicts that the workforce of the future will be made up of employees working side by side with contractors, and with AI and automation. Increasingly, employers will crowdsource work as part of the mix, Schwartz says.

How will that work? “There are significant R&D projects where they’re using competitions,” Schwartz says. One of the most famous of these was the Netflix Prize in 2009. Netflix offered a $1 million prize to anyone who could make a 10 percent or better improvement to its software that recommended movies and TV shows to users based on their ratings of content they’d watched. The winning team, dubbed Bellkor’s Pragmatic Chaos, managed a 10.6 percent improvement.

Since then, other companies have used similar competitions to solve difficult technical problems. In 2013, for instance, GE used a similar approach to find a lighter way to fasten airplane wings onto airplanes. “For a reasonable amount of money, you can get a lot of people around the world to solve your problem,” Schwartz says. “Our sense is that you can use the crowd for almost any kind of work. You can ‘pixelate’ the work into very small pieces and get the crowd to work on different pieces.”

One advantage: Crowdsourcing gives you access to a much larger cohort of skilled workers than your company could ever hire. “Most of the best programmers in the world don’t work for you,” Schwartz says. “And there’s a significant number who don’t want to work for anybody. So I think this is a really interesting perspective.”

4. Quantum computing will redefine productivity

Asked which emerging technologies would make the biggest difference to the future workplace, several experts pointed to quantum computing. Traditional silicon chip-based computers work in binary code where every value is either zero or one. Quantum computing allows for a third state combining zero and one, meaning that quantum computers are dramatically more powerful than the computers we have today.

Last year, researchers at the University of Michigan sent electrons through a semiconductor using ultrafast laser pulses. It was a first step toward creating computers thousands of times faster than today’s. “We are probably at least two or three years away from significant adoption, just because using small light pulses is really difficult, and the cost is not insignificant,” says Ragu Gurumurthy, chief digital officer and chief innovation officer at Deloitte.

But when quantum computing does arrive in your workplace, expect it to make a big difference. “At the most basic level, the entire network and internet can be a lot safer with quantum computers,” Gurumurthy says. “Cyber security is enhanced exponentially.”

Secondly, he says, “There are a lot of problems today that we don’t have enough compute power to solve fast enough in terms of modeling.”

Most importantly, quantum computing can drastically decrease power requirements for enterprise-level computing. “When one thinks about the operational cost of a data center or switching center, power is a big component of that cost,” he says. “How do you architect a data center to bring that cost down?”

It’s a concern that goes beyond cost. Last year, the Semiconductor Industry Association published a report predicting that if traditional computing continues its current growth, by 2040, we will no longer be able to generate enough power to run the world’s computers. Because it’s not bound by the physics that demand a minimum amount of power to run a traditional computer, quantum computing is a potential solution to that problem.

5. You can never stop studying

As an IT leader, you must constantly keep learning about the technologies most likely to benefit your organization — or your competitors — in the future, experts said. For example, consider augmented reality and virtual reality, already in use for training and diagnostic purposes — technologies you may need to watch closely in the coming years. “I was surprised at how augmented reality and virtual reality have evolved in the last 12 months,” Gurumurthy says. “I once would have said they would only be useful for gamers, but these technologies will have an impact on the workplace in the next five years.”

“It’s important to spend time looking on the periphery at some of the new stuff coming,” Burns adds. “You need the ability to look beyond the day-to-day work you have to do. It’s far better to spend 5 percent of your time looking to the future than 100 percent of your time dealing with what’s in your inbox.”

In an uncertain world, it’s important to keep as many options open as you can. “Some of these emerging technologies seem like they’re far away,” he says. “But they’ll be here before you know it.”

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