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Automation putting society’s most vulnerable at risk: Techfugees co-founder

Automation putting society’s most vulnerable at risk: Techfugees co-founder

Business is moving from an ‘egosystem to an ecosystem’: Anne-Marie Elias

Anne-Marie Elias: "We are spending billions of dollars and each year, the problems are getting worse."

Anne-Marie Elias: "We are spending billions of dollars and each year, the problems are getting worse."

Technology-driven automation and mechanisation is completely meaningless if its impact on humans – particularly the most vulnerable among us – is not taken into consideration, says Techfugees co-founder, Anne-Marie Elias.

Speaking at the CIO Summit in Perth, Elias told the audience that progress comes with concerns. She quoted the International Labour Organisation which has found that there are 3.6 billion people today either unemployed or underemployed and around 600,000 people in Australia are on employment benefits.

“My passion is to remind you that technology in and of itself doesn’t mean anything. Where it becomes powerful is where it augments or enables the human experience; that’s really the important thing we need to think about,” Elias told the audience.

“We are spending billions of dollars and each year, the problems are getting worse, not better.”

Elias highlighted an Accenture report which noted that automation will inevitably disrupt the workforce but if companies start to reskill their employees now, they can help them to weather automation without displacement.

In 2017, Accenture shed 17,000 jobs worldwide and apart from the few staff were took redundancies, 89 per cent were redeployed across the organisation.

“That’s really heartening when you think of an organisation like that and how you might be able to do the same thing [redeploying staff] in your organisation. I know that if you are a small council or medium to large provider, you may not have the capacity to move people around,” Elias said.

But business is moving from an ‘egosystem to an ecosystem’ where traditional command and control structures are being replaced by a community that exists inside the workplace, she said.

“You need to start thinking about your own people. What would have happened if Accenture had shed those 17,000 jobs? Shareholders don’t appreciate things like that happening which affect the reputation of the brand. People get angry; they get upset when they see people not too dissimilar to ourselves ending up unemployed because a factory has shut down or a company has restructured. So we have to be really mindful of that,” Elias told the audience.

“The good news is that companies like Accenture show us that things can be different.”

Elias also highlighted the landmark agreement signed last April between startup Airtasker and Unions NSW to improve conditions for workers in the gig economy.

This followed a Unions NSW report which found that the gig economy was damaging wages and conditions.

“Tim Fung [Airtasker founder] is a decent guy; he was mortified about the report,” said Elias. “They are now working together to set minimum wages for each job. We were getting situations on Airtasker where people would say, ‘I’ve got $20, you can clean my five bedroom house.’ And people were desperate to get the work and they would do it but that’s unreasonable and it’s unfair. And it’s not the right thing to do,” she said.

The agreement sets a new standard about the casualisation of work in the gig economy and how Airtasker responds, she said.

“We need to reimagine the future of work and it’s our duty and responsibility to do so."

Rethink your approach to innovation

Organisations must value their people, they know the business better than external party, said Elias.

“What you need to do is bring in the innovators to work with your people and bring out the skills in them. What I have seen over many years is we trot out people to be in one week workshops or whatever. It doesn’t work, they come back and they are pummeled with the day-to-day and they don’t seem to be able to shift.

“It’s not enough to go to a workshop or watch a presentation. What is important is that you immerse yourself in this stuff. And you learn from it and then you will do something about it.”

For the last 6 months, Elias has worked with New Horizons, a not for profit disability, aged and mental health organisation as an ‘entrepreneur in residence.’ The company initially wanted to employ Elias as its innovation manager.

“They wanted me to come in and do innovation work with them but it doesn’t work. Because what you say to your people when you bring in someone and say, ‘here’s Anne-Marie and she’s our innovation manager.’ What do you think people’s reactions are really going to be? Innovation exists in every single one of us.

“I have been sitting alongside their leadership team for 3 days a week, looking at the problems they choose to solve and taking them through an iterative process of what we do in a hackathon, or a design or innovation lab,” Elias said.

“But all of these things are meaningless if you can’t support people to do this every day. Innovation is not something that exists in one part of your organisation; it’s something that should be a state of mind. It’s a way that you work.

When you talk about innovation, stop talking shit. It’s about knowing what’s the problem worth solving – because if you don’t know that, you’re presenting a solution to find a problem. This is going to be costly and is not going to end well for anybody,” Elias said.

No industry is safe

Elias rightly points out that no market sector is safe from the disruptive force of new technology startups. New companies like Hireup, Home Care Heros and CareSeekers, for example, are shaking up the disability services sector, she said. 

“Each one of these businesses was founded by people with lived experience," she said.

The brother of Hireup’s founders Jordan and Laura O’Reilly had cerebral palsy and died in care, Elias said.

"His siblings who grew up going into group home where there was never consistency in care felt that his life was rather undignified. Unfortunately he passed away before they launched their business. But their business brings severely disabled people into an environment where they are doing a whole lot of tech stuff, the scanning and digitising of documents; giving people a sense of hope and future.”

Disruption through innovation is affecting both blue and white collar workers and industries alike, she added.

“I sit on the NSW Administrative Appeals Tribunal part time and I keep saying to those people, ‘we won’t be needed in the future.’ There will be a little robot that comes in and just does all of that – looks at 100,000 cases of case law and produces an outcome to say, ‘no, your access is denied.’

“They freak out and say, ‘no, we are lawyers and specialists.’ And it’s like, ‘so are the accountants, and then came Xero and MYOB.’ It doesn’t mean that you get rid of them all but it means that there are other things that you need to be thinking about.”

Elias said she is heartened by the fact that industries that will experience growth through this period of technological disruption are service industries like healthcare and social services.

“In Japan, they are using robots to assist in hospitals [to reduce] injuries sustained by nurses carrying people,” she said. “So they have now got robots who pick up the older person; these are really clever ways of helping people.”

Skills of the future

Quoting the World Economic Forum, Elias said the top 10 skills that will be in the highest demand by 2020 include: complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgement and decision making, service orientation, negotiation, cognitive flexibility

“There’s a lot of emotional intelligence that we are needing, we are going to need more critical thinking skills, people management, collaboration, coordinating with other people – getting out of that silo mentality,” she said.

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