Digitise what you can and focus on everything else


I recently attended the Future of Work conference jointly hosted by the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency and Australia’s Industry Skills Councils. Over two days expert researchers and speakers from around the world shared insights into the drivers and possible outcomes for the future of work. A strong theme of the conference was the likely loss of high skilled jobs as a result of overseas competition or due to improving technology.

Professor Hugh Lauder, co-author of ‘the Global Auction‘ pointed to China’s target to have 195 million graduates by 2020 as a cause of concern for Australian workers, suggesting that although we have traditionally accepts outsourcing for low skill jobs there will be increasing pressure on high skill jobs as well. Increases in computing power and the growth of the robotics industry is also resulting in ‘digital Taylorism‘ as more and ore complex tasks can now be done by computers.

Although I agree with the drivers I don’t necessarily agree with the outcomes. Although we will undoubtedly continue to see TASKS outsourced or digitized I believe that it is much harder to outsource/digitize whole jobs.

Darren Williams, Chief Technology Officer at Freelancer.com suggested that you could now hire an architect and get your house plans done from a skilled overseas service provider via their outsourcing site. Although you can get a set of house plans I would argue that this is not the same as hiring an architect. The role of an architect involves a complex and interactive process of understanding client needs and integrating these into the prevailing community and environmental dynamics of the building site. This is not a process that can be easily digitized. On the other hand, once the architect starts drafting the plans this should be a digital process (and in a lot of cases already is) as digital allows for the fast and effective development and sharing of the design data.

Rather than focus on the loss of certain tasks, we need to identify and enjoy the benefits we will obtained from digitizing parts of our jobs. Individually it will allow us to be more effective at what we do and to focus on the more human and creative elements of our work. The outcome of this may mean that there is excess capacity within certain fields but this may not necessarily result in fewer jobs. Take architecture for example, excess capacity amongst architects may lead to consolidation in the industry OR it may mean that more people get to enjoy the benefits of  architecturally designed houses as reduced costs make them more affordable.

In fact I believe the greatest risk of digital Taylorism and off shoring work is not about losing your job but about not being proactive about identifying which parts of your job should be digitized. We have a competitive marketplace for work and if we don’t start to work proactively to identify how we can use technology to do our jobs more effectively we risk losing it to the competitor down the street well before we lose it to the robot or the competitor overseas.