Winning the technology race: 6 simple lessons you can follow from history and business

Despite all the grim prophesies, technological advances throughout the last century haven’t led to mass redundancies, or the end of work as we know it. And there is no reason to believe that recent and imminent technological innovations will either.

But it will be your choice whether you are a winner or a loser in the race to adopt new technologies….

A recent Forbes article said: the misconception is that advances in robotics and artificial intelligence will lead to machines capable of doing everything. We won’t need workers at all except a few supervisors or programmers.
The problem with this premise is not the first part, but the second. Machines may, in fact, one day be able to perform most tasks currently done by people. The error is assuming that means that total jobs will decline.

Am I an optimist? Yes I am, but with good reason.

We have been here before!

In 1841, 22% of the UK population worked in agriculture; by 2011 this had fallen to less than 1%. It’s pretty obvious that the increased sophistication and use of machinery led to this, but it didn’t lead to permanent mass unemployment.

The displaced agricultural workers found other jobs, and many of the jobs they found didn’t exist back in 1841. They were in new industries also made possible by the rise in automation. Yes, there was social dislocation and a movement of the populations to urban areas, but (in spite of what a lot of people believe), real wages and the standard of living improved.

In the 1980s, when trade unions were involved in negotiations around the introduction of new technology (computerisation, personal computers, etc), there was a fear of mass redundancies, but again it did not happen.

Today the pace of change is even faster, and we respond to that change even faster because we are used to change. So just think how much easier it will be for us to adjust to the growth of machine intelligence and robotics.

Since those ‘new technology’ days in the 1980s, technological advances have almost always allowed businesses to find better ways to serve their customers and new work for their people to do.

AI and robotics will be no different.

So how do you take advantage of new technologies instead of sinking under them?

There are six things you need to do well – really do well, not just pay lip service to. If several items on this list sound like classic change management tips well, surprise, surprise, that’s exactly what they are.

And that is the main reason why I think smaller, more nimble businesses will be the ones to make the big gains first. Sorry, large corporates and the public sector, but how often have any of us seen major, disruptive change successfully and smoothly implemented in your organisations? Not very often!

  1. Put fear aside – don’t hesitate. Learn from history and grasp the opportunities that robotics, AI and machine learning offer your business. You can guarantee that your most successful competitors will be doing this. The pace at which technology is now advancing means early adopters can make big gains, while latecomers risk their businesses being damaged, possibly beyond repair.  Look at Nokia and Blackberry!
  2. Drive it from the top. Change must be driven by business leaders, not delegated to HR or outside change management consultants. If you won’t stand up and say you believe in this change and why you believe in it – how can you expect your staff to?
  3. Engage champions. Get people who will be affected by the change to ‘make change’ not ‘be changed’. Negativity can spread easily in the workplace. Enlist trusted co-workers to speak positively on the benefits of any new technology – not managers.
  4. Build relationships. You will need to build open-book relationships with unions and works councils. This is the area where I fear that some ex-public sector organisations are already failing, and it will take a major shift in culture to repair those broken relationships.
  5. Make sure that technology is serving your business, not dominating it or your people. The changes you introduce should benefit everyone, not just you. HCL CEO Anant Gupta says “the raison d’etre of technology is to trigger and harness disruption for the benefit of people in a collaborative process”. So let your staff know how the technology will benefit them. If you don’t know how to get this across, or if you aren’t sure what the benefits will be – get your champions to come up with ideas. They are doing the jobs that will be affected; it’s highly likely that they know how to use technology to improve the job, as well as increase productivity, much better than you do.
  6. Recognise the differences between humans and machines. Understand and be clear about what each can do and why both matter. Make sure that everyone understands this, and knows that you believe it. This will go a long way in reassuring your staff that you respect them and what they do.

If you can genuinely follow these principles, you stand a good chance of of being one of the winners in the race towards our robotics and AI enhanced future.

This article is an introduction to the session I will be giving at Social Robotics & AI – the world’s first conference on the science of robotics and AI, and its impact on business and the world of work.

If this is something you would enjoy, then why not join business leaders, world leading scientists, technologists and psychologists at Oxford Brookes University on September 15th.

If you use the promotional code SPK2016 when you register, you will be able to attend at the reduced rate of £395 instead of £695.

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