Over the past 20 years, we have seen digital technologies reshape our world, transforming how we work and live, writes Anton Herbst, CEO of Tarsus on Demand. The Internet has enabled new levels of productivity, created the world’s first companies to top trillion-dollar market valuations, and helped to accelerate globalisation.

In the process, it has also endangered a range of companies and jobs in industries such as traditional media, high-street retail and travel. But this trend of creative destruction is well underway, and is being accelerated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our working lives.

The growing maturity and adoption of intelligent automation technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) is helping to usher in the next era of disruption. And South Africa’s companies, employees and public sector are mostly unprepared for the levels of change we can expect within the next 10 years.

We can expect to see more industries go the way of analogue photography and more traditional jobs go the way of the switchboard operator in the next decade. This trend was already in full swing and the pace is picking up with businesses embracing digital channels and remote work as responses to the need for physical distancing triggered by the coronavirus.

Today’s workplace and workforce is mostly organised around industrial age principles. We have structured jobs as a set of tasks and processes designed to be as rulebound, standardised and integrated as possible. But automated systems and processes are really good at doing tasks that are rule-driven, standard and integrated.

As such, the content of most industrial jobs is well-suited to automation via software and physical robots. Humans simply cannot keep up with the high speed or low cost of machines when it comes to carrying out narrowly specified, repetitive jobs and tasks. And we cannot retrain the workforce fast enough to keep up with the pace at which industrialised processes and tasks are being automated.

Automated out of work?

Many people are thus understandably anxious that they’ll be automated out of work in the years to come, even if they are open to reskilling. According to a PwC consumer survey of 10,000 people, 60% of respondents think ‘few people will have stable, long-term employment in the future’, though 74% are ready to learn new skills or completely retrain in order to remain employable in the future.

In a country where we already have an unemployment rate of 30%, we need to see this global trend as a crisis and an opportunity. On the one hand, we need to think about preserving employment; on the other, we need to consider how we can position the country to exploit automation to improve competitiveness and create new, high-paying jobs.

The good news is that there will always be work to do as long as human beings have problems. And with climate change, poverty, healthcare challenges, fragile supply chains, and a growing population to feed, there is no shortage of problems to be solved. But solving these global problems demands that we think about work differently and organise our businesses differently.

The implication for each person is that they need to develop a range of capabilities and traits beyond the technical requirements of their traditional job. Computers excel at crunching numbers, for example, but they can’t compete with a seasoned finance professional’s ability to interpret the data to understand the underlying trends.

The most successful people in the future will be those who are resilient and curious, have exceptional problem-solving abilities, have developed the ability to think critically, and who shine at emotional intelligence, collaboration and innovation. These so-called soft skills can be learnt and developed over time, and AI isn’t great at them. At least not yet.

Harnessing human strengths

The most successful organisations will be structured in a way that enables them to harvest the fruits of human passion, ingenuity and empathy. Diversity is an important element here – not just diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, age and educational background, but also of thinking and perspective.

Teams in the future workplace will be built for collaboration – perhaps with five to 15 people working together in multidisciplinary units that are assembled on the fly to harness opportunities, solve problems and carry out strategic projects. Each team will comprise people with different functional experience and expertise – the siloes of the past (sales, marketing, finance, production) will start to disappear.

Look at how a Hollywood movie is made by assembling a ‘dream team’ of creative talent, technical crew and production staff – many business teams will follow a similar model. Teams will not necessarily be made up only of full-time employees – they will often include a larger mix of freelancers, contractors, secondments from business partners, and offshore skills, all supported by AI and robots.

Given that organisations have adapted to remote working with relative ease in response to COVID-19 lockdowns, we can expect to see working teams becoming increasingly virtualised and fluid. A logical next step for some organisations might be to start seeing the world rather than their city or their country as their talent pool – if someone can work from home, does it really matter if home is Cape Town, Cairo, Kolkata or Chicago?

Experiential learning technologies and next-generation collaboration tools will enable people to learn fast on the job and work cohesively with others from around the world. These workers will innovate on the edge to stay close to the needs of the customer, often cocreating solutions with clients and other stakeholders.

This level of change brings with it the possibility of social upheaval in a country that was already beset by unemployment and poverty before the economic devastation of the virus. On the one hand, all this technology-driven change will be liberating for many people, gifting them with more exciting work and more opportunities to grow their earning power. On the other, introducing more uncertainty to the job market carries risks when many people lack a safety net or the skills for the new world.

Transitioning to the new world

Each South African company needs to think about how it will transition to the new world with empathy for its workforce and in a way that supports job creation. Government policymakers will also have their work cut out for them. But it’s within our reach to turn the new wave of automation into a wonderful opportunity. Our world-class car manufacturing industry set an example of elevating competitiveness via automation while still creating jobs and economic value.

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