Future of Work

Future of Work

Bob Pulver

Technology Leader at Cognitive Path

Michał Grela

Relationship Manager at Future Processing

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The Reskilling revolution is just around a corner, with COVID-19 accelerating changes in organisations that specifically touch upon the human aspect of the business. Let’s take a look how the Future of Work will look like!

More and more companies are moving towards digital transformation of their businesses. This time though, it looks like the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated changes in organisations that specifically touch upon the human aspect of the business directly.

As the “The Future of Jobs Survey” reveals, “50% of employers will accelerate the automation of their work, while over 80% are set to expand the digitization of their work processes. That means that some jobs that have been lost will never come back, and those that do will require new ways of working and new skills.”

During this conversation with Bob, discuss how the new Future of Work will look like.

Michał Grela (MG): Hello, and welcome to another episode of IT Insights by Future Processing. The topic of the discussion for today is “is the future of work closer than we think”? I believe it’s a very relevant topic indeed, bearing in mind the changes we observe at the moment. More and more companies are moving towards digital and digital transformation is here with us for good few years already, but this time though, it looks like the COVID pandemic accelerate the changes in organizations that specifically touch upon the human aspect of the business directly. As the recent survey reveals, around 50% of employers will accelerate the automation of the work while over 80% are set to expand the digitization of their work processes. That means that some jobs that have been lost will never come back and those that do will require new ways of working and new skills. That’s definitely a challenge we are all facing at the moment. Let’s discuss it with Bob Pulver, my guest today. Bob, I’m really happy to have you here with me today. Would you be so kind and introduce yourself to our audience please?

Bob Pulver (BP): Sure. Thanks for having me, Michael. My name is Bob Pulver. I’m actually… Well, where’s my background? I’ve taken a very non-linear, let’s say, career path. A couple of decades at IBM in about 12 different roles in 10 different cities. Some of that was working remotely so I’m quite familiar with the situation that most people find themselves in 2020 and right now. Spent some time in the media industry at Comcast NBCUniversal strategy and operations. But overall, I would say that some of the themes that withdrew my career are around human… I’ll say human potential. A lot of that is around collaborative decision-making, collective intelligence, crowdsourcing before there was a gig, economy, there was plenty of crowdsourcing going on all the way back to Wikipedia and some of the origins of the internet.
I’ve spent a lot of time balancing technology and talent, but technology ideally for advancing work and the evolution of work, as opposed to technology just for technology’s sake. I’ve certainly seen my share of cool emerging technologies and gadgets and things in my time, especially working with IBM research, but you’ve got to solve a real problem with technology. That I think is one of the key things about the future of work. Let’s make sure we’re doing the right things in the right way and building the optimal teams to move our companies forward.

MG: Thanks for the intro Bob. I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on these really relevant aspects, because my understanding, or I guess the market situation in plain words is that, a lot of people worry about the future of their workforce. Not only considering AI or machine learning, of course on the one hand, buzzwords, but on the other hand, actually disruptors when it comes to playing increasingly significant role in businesses. As a result, it looks like the re skilling revolution is just around the corner. What would be your take on that?

BP: Yeah, this was actually a reason, in 2020, I spent quite a bit of time focusing on this path, aspect of the talent market. You can argue that everyone needs to be a perpetual learner, if you will. You need to always be willing to learn new skills. If you’re staying in the same role or in the same career path, we would typically refer to that as up scaling. Everyone needs to be more comfortable working with data and interpreting data. Everyone needs to… You don’t have to be a designer to learn the benefits of doing a design thinking, exercise, those kinds of things. When you think about… To your point, Michael… About that some jobs are going away, whether they’re being automated away or just through the evolution of technology. Whether it’s manufacturing or otherwise, there are some jobs that may not come back.
How do you identify the right career pivot to make? What are the jobs that will exist in 2030 for example? Re-skilling is really… It’s everyone’s responsibility in a way. I mean, certainly, some of the traditional career advice I always got was, you’re in charge of your own career, which is true still. However, technology can help and companies really have a vested interest in this as well, which shouldn’t be… To me is common sense. If your skills… If you let your workers, your employees skills get stale, then you’ve got to hire a whole new workforce. Why would you want to do that? Can you even imagine the cost of a large company basically replacing all of their people? That makes no sense. It’s cost prohibitive. It doesn’t scale.
You’d never catch up because by the time you hired all those people it’d be time to potentially do that exercise again. The key is you’ve got great people there. They’re loyal to your company, they’ve, working there for the most part so how can you make the right investments in your people, such that they continue to work for you. You retain that tacit knowledge that they’ve accumulated over their tenure at your company. How do you find opportunities for them to move into different career paths or different learning paths that keeps them engaged and you can then retain them as your leadership pipeline of tomorrow. It’s an important area to focus on.
I think one of the keys is, how do you know where to go? How do you know how to reposition yourself, where to reposition yourself? Part of that gets into the technologies that, some of which have existed for decades, you think about personality tests or behavioral tests and things of that nature. I think there’s some modern takes on some of that. Maybe people combining some of those assessments in unique ways, depending on what the needs are, but certainly I’ve seen firsthand where people have just… They’ve been doing what we call blue collar work hourly, manual work, manual, meaning, using your hands more than your brain.
We’ve seen plenty of cases where those people given the right assessment had propensity to be potential software engineers, for example. How do you help them make that pivot? How do you put them into the training and the bootcamps and things like that and sponsor that training, knowing that when you come out the other side, you’ve got a high likelihood that you’ve got this budding engineer or product manager or whatever it is. It’s got to be repositioning somebody who’s going to have a whole new career path ahead of them. There’s a lot of facets to make that successful but those are some of the high-level aspects that I think are important.

MG: Thanks. That was really a comprehensive assessment. You already answered a few of my questions. It makes things easier. I definitely agree that the changes are ongoing and there’s the aftermath of these changes. It’s natural that there’s certain jobs that will slowly disappear and that new jobs will emerge, or maybe we could even say that they are emerging at the moment. Of course, this transition or, as you said, pivot from blue collar to perhaps white collar, or the other way around as well… Why not… Is feasible. That’s a good question. How can we, as the industry, support that? So why not. This question now, how companies can actually support that move into the future jobs? What can organizations or movements in the industry do to support these initiatives?

BP: Yeah, it’s an important question. I think the first is that companies need to recognize that this is an important investment for their own future. There’s certainly some financial exercises that may need to go into this and explaining through a proper business case that you’re going to get a return on your investment. Because if you think about the costs of talent acquisition and sourcing new people. If you think about the money and the productivity that’s lost through attrition, people just naturally just leaving, maybe they get bored, maybe their job is automated away, maybe there’s just operational cost cutting that’s taking place. Even though there’s plenty of work to do, they maybe cut some people anyway because they were just at the point where they wanted to keep the doors open, so to speak. They had to make some difficult decisions.
This is a collective responsibility. I mean, it’s a responsibility of the employee, of course, to make sure they’re always looking out for their own career trajectory and can they support their own goals and their families’ goals towards retirement. Also, job satisfaction. Some of the responsibility is on the employee. We can’t shake that completely, but some of it is on the employer. There’s programs within communities, whether it’s a not-for-profit philanthropic enterprise or it’s government programs and things like that. Everyone is better off when employment rates are high. It fuels everything. It reduces mental health issues, it improves the economy. There’s all kinds of far reaching benefits of a highly employed population.
I think in some ways it’s everyone’s responsibility, but as a practical matter, I feel like it’s the companies’. There’s a lot of competition these days. Everyone is trying to do what they can to have an ear to the ground, as they said, to listen to trends and how those trends are going to impact companies’ futures. part of that scouting of trends, means figuring out what are the skills and the roles of tomorrow. By doing that, a company can look and say, “Well, we’re moving in this direction.” That’s going to require at least in 20% of our population to have these particular skills, or these are the roles that are going to go away, but there’s a lot of good quality people in those, in those roles, so what are we going to do starting now to start to make and nudge people towards making this shift, whether it’s, involves up-skilling or re-skilling.
You need to be proactive in terms of assessing the market, understanding where transit might be moving you, or what is the future that you envision for your own company to be successful in the future? And who are the people, what are the roles, what are the skills that you need to get there?
That’s not an easy task by any stretch. It requires a lot of data. A lot of data about your workforce and having a good skills inventory. What kind of expertise do we have? What kind of skills do we have? And how big is that gap between what we have now and what we need tomorrow? And you need to actively thinks about a comprehensive program. Maybe some of that is too big a jump for your current folks to make that leap or to make that transition, that pivot into some of those new roles, so maybe you do need to take some new people, which is fine. That’s just part of the growth. At least you’re being proactive and you have an understanding of what you need and what it’s going to take to get there.
I think there’s a lot of things that can be done. It’s not easy but I think organizations need to embrace that foresight mentality so that they position this right. Otherwise, they’re caught flat footed and they’re in react mode, then you’re just spending your time trying to plug holes in the dam and that’s not an effective strategy. You got to start thinking about your… Some people call this Dynamic Workforce Management or Strategic Workforce Planning, those kinds of titles you may say. It’s all about, how do you put the right teams together with the right skills? What does that look like? And both up-skilling and re-skilling really needs to be part of your workforce strategy if it’s not already.

MG: Sounds like definitely a tough nut to crack. Well, that was quite a mouthful. I really liked the bits you said about, that businesses must realize it’s about them too. There is a business case and an ROI in activities related to engaging the workforce, or even the communities. Investing in that shift towards, what will be required in the future when it comes to work. I definitely also agree that there are different levels of approach. The approach should be… There should be pro activeness from top-down and down-up from the governments, from NGOs businesses, plus from the people themselves. They have to realize that presumably they will have to move the ladder to another wall at least few times in their lifetime in order to have a fruitful career. That’s the way the world works right now. It’s volatile and it’s changing. That’s not bad, it is just different that perhaps it wasn’t. I believe that, accepting that as a fact is an inevitable step, and first inevitable step to take.

BP: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, change… It’s funny to say… But the change is constant. You have to adapt along with some of these trends as things evolve. I mean, you’ve got to take some of the responsibility yourself, but the companies are definitely not off the hook from providing the atmosphere, the time and the investment, and some of the tools that can help. Because, it is… As you said earlier… It is to their mutual benefit of both the employee and the employer.

MG: Right. You talked a lot about the business and the human side. I’d like to move towards the tech side a bit because technology is definitely a driving factor of this change. A Sci-Fi scenario or a Realty already. Do you think there’s the future ahead of us, or already a situation where there’s a symbiosis between the human workforce and the technology or robotic machine workforce. How do you think people evolve with technology. Will it just be tools that we’ll use on daily basis or should we expect that a growing chunk of services will be robotized or… Just thinking about the future.

BP: Yeah. This is a really important question. I’m going to respond in little chunks so I don’t get off on the tangent too far, because this is a big topic. This has far reaching implications in the sense that, when you think about, maybe I do want to make a career pivot. One of the things that’s important to think about and maybe do some research on is, when you think about automation, it’s usually… I mean, even automation, you could break that down into multiple facets. Some of that is actual robots like in a manufacturing line doing a task that used to be done by humans. It’s not just blue collar environments where that’s the case. I mean, there are robots doing surgery now.
Even medical profession, everyone thinks of medical doctors, especially surgeons as being… This is a job that takes an extremely bright and well-educated person to do this kind of task. I mean, people come from far and wide to have their surgery done by a particular surgeon or whatever. Well, guess what, now there’s surgeons doing, I mean, robots doing surgery. Right now, most of those are controlled by an actual surgeon, but some of that is done remotely. Another category of automation is actual… What they refer to as Robotic Process Automation, which is not actual mechanical robots, but rather programs, scripts and algorithms that are written to basically do what were previously human tasks or it’s automatically connecting. Anyone that uses IFTTT or any of these things, if they’re in their smart home, is familiar with some of this. There are routines or little scripts that say, pass this data to this other system and things of that nature.
We see the growth of these low code or no code platforms and environments that enable this kind of thing. I think when you think about your career and how you’re going to work with the technology and maybe what role you’d want to move into, part of that thought process should include, well, what tasks related to this job or this process within the scope of this job, can easily be automated if they’re not automated already? And you want to stay away or at least know how much of that process or what percentage of those tasks are subject to automation. Because if so, if some of those things are already being automated, then in five years, the job probably won’t really exist, at least not as it’s defined today. You’ve got to make sure that you’re working.
These are just obstacles that you need to be aware of as you navigate your new path, if you will. You’ve got to understand what things can be automated because you don’t want to go re-skill yourself to a role that into years is essentially gone. You’re scouring, looking for a company who hasn’t made that shift yet. You want to give yourself the most possibility or the most possibilities in terms of your career potential.
In terms of the actual working with technology, one of the things that IBM leadership used to always promote, because I was there watching, I mean, Watson technology grow up, come out of the research labs and play jeopardy. I witnessed all of that firsthand, so one of the things that we always try to describe, because that was one of the big periods, of late, that people really got nervous that machine could have this general… It was the first example of general AI, where it was just answering seemingly random questions. It wasn’t a specific domain, which is where AI typically focuses. Now you train models in specific areas.
One of the phrases that [IBM] Leadership used is… It wasn’t artificial intelligence. It was augmented intelligence. What that means is, it wasn’t technology to replace a human being, it was to help that human augment, that human decision-making so take off a lot of the heavy lifting out of decision-making processes and present aggregate, lots of data and pull even weak signals out of disparate data sources and present that to a person so that they would make a more informed decision. Whether that’s in a medical context, in a healthcare context, or in some other strategic decision-making process at a company, there’s more data than a human being or even a team of human beings can assimilate, so take a lot of that heavy lifting. The things that computers are good at and machine learning and AI can do really well, better than a human. There are things that humans can do a lot better than machines in terms of the way that we think, and some of the context that we’re able to take into account when we make a decision.
The symbiosis that you mentioned is really about what is the optimal marriage of that human thought and artificial intelligence, which even for automation, as you move up the maturity scale of automation, you get into this category of cognitive automation. It’s AI based automation. It’s prescriptive, it’s proactive, and it’s knowing how to detect anomalies in data, helps you perhaps make predictions, helps you weigh different options.
Imagine a financial portfolio, and it’s helping you figure out where to place some bets. Or maybe a company starts to use it for mergers and acquisitions. It helps you determine who are my best, based on these criteria and where we’re going, I want you to look at that potential acquisition targets based on other data. That’s just one example of where humans and machines would work together. I think a lot of what we’re seeing, especially with some of these domain specific AI use cases, is how do we… We’re not trying to take humans out of it completely, there’s always what some referred to as, a human in the loop so that when you have these feedback mechanisms, which is critical for any of these machine learning algorithms to get smarter, they have to take on new data and they have to take on disparate data, diverse data, otherwise you wind up with models that have a certain bias to them.
How do you think about future decision-making processes and even just over the course of your everyday work, how do you think about what would make my life easier? How could AI and advanced technology helped me make a better decision, helped me increase cybersecurity, helped me pick the best candidate for this open role that I have. There’s a lot of different ways that humans and machines can work together, but the best examples and the most encouraging examples I’ve seen, are where, we know people are making ineffective or suboptimal decisions, and we can train machines to help mitigate some of that risk and improve the quality of that decision-making.

MG: That was also a pretty end to end answer. Thanks for that, Bob. I think that’s a good summary of the conversation is that, of course the future of workforce is to some extent already there, to some extent it will be happening in front of our eyes. It’s good to understand that it’s not a bad thing and it can bring a lot of good stuff to the table. It could be very positive, but it’s about the mindset and the approach of both people and organizations and the industry itself to make the most of it. As long as we’re focused on the positive outcomes, it’s possible to tap into the vast pool of benefits that the technology and other trends bring to the table. Of course there will be challenges, but life’s not a bed of roses, neither is a career.

BP: Yeah. I think the younger generation of people of just recent college graduates, I mean, this is really important for them to think about and do this research. I think there’s so many professions that could be disrupted by this technology. I don’t think… There’s a lot of things. I talked about robotic surgery. I’m not saying that, don’t go to medical school because I mean, that’s a dead end. I mean, that would be a ridiculous statement, but you still got to be aware of… As you choose your specialty… And I’m not even sure when over the course of medical school or your residency or whatever, when you pick your specialty. I mean, it’s something to think about. I mean, I have a good friend who’s radiologist and if we were 20 years younger, I would be nervous for him from a career perspective because, hey, I can read x-rays now, I can detect cancerous tissue in an MRI. I mean, that is no longer a human specific.

MG: And AI going to do it better. There’s actually the fact that over his lifetime or during career, he will be able to see what around 2000 maybe pictures or scans, whereas AI will see 20,000 in a few days.

BP: Yeah. Now, there’s still plenty of his job that involves human judgment and he may have other data that the algorithm doesn’t see. It’s almost like, in some cases, the technology is almost acting like an appliance. It does one thing very good.

MG: But at the end of the day, it might just end up as a human in the loop, as you said.
BP: Yeah. I think there should always be a human in the loop. I don’t want to get sidetracked for this. A lot of people that, my old colleagues from IBM that are looking at the ethics of AI, the potential bias and AI algorithms. Who’s checking to make sure that some of the… And this is just one very important reason why there’s always needs to be a human in the loop because some of these decisions are life and death. Some of these decisions might be related to national security or whatever it is. I mean, you can’t just completely take humans out of the loop. I think it would be a very long time before you want to take humans completely out of the loop with some exceptions. There might be some people doing day trading and automated trading and things like that, where they have built their own custom algorithm from the ground up and they know exactly what to look for and they audit it after the fact. It’s actually executing trades automatically then they look back and see how they did.
That’s a little different because it doesn’t necessarily affect people. I think we’d want to be particularly careful where there’s humans that are impacted by some of these decisions. I mean, it’s a pretty exciting time to think about all of these things. I mean, it’s nerve wracking for a lot of people because they’re, 2020, it was not good to them career wise and they’re rethinking their own value and where they want to re-position themselves for 2021 and beyond, and do this whole career reset in some cases. These are the thinkers, some important things to think about, even if you’re not a technologist, you have to recognize that technology is going to impact pretty much every job, if it hasn’t already impacted industries and specific roles, it will, in very short order. You just need to be aware of that and make an informed decision about your own career and where you’re making investments in your own skills.

MG: That’s definitely something to consider, especially for us, as you mentioned, people that are just entering the market. Well, thanks for sharing your insights. That was really quite a conversation. Half an hour full of insights. I really enjoyed it. Thank you Bob, and thank you, our listeners for staying with us for this, another episode of IT Insights. If you liked it, please let us know. Don’t hesitate to share it and do drop us a line. If you wish to have another topic covered in one of the future episodes. Thank you. That was IT Insights by fitter, practicing with Bob Pulver. Thanks.