Man at assembly line
The film Modern Times starring Charlie Chaplin features a scene showing factory workers struggle to cope with a conveyor belt. Chaplin’s character is one of the workers. Unable to keep up with the production line’s breakneck pace, he ends up trapped in the cogwheels of a monstrous machine. This tragicomical scene offers a simple illustration of concerns surrounding work automation in the early 20th century. The film suggested that the capitalist model reduces workers to the role of an imperfect addition to the manufacturing process. Work of the future.
Similar scenes could well play out in today’s storage rooms of many distribution companies. Yet, they wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic or comical. We would see workers perform tasks to a rhythm set by modern scanners which record human behavior at the conveyor belt and meticulously measure downtime. This is how efficiency improvements and production safety are achieved today. What I find important in this story is that people working at assembly lines may soon become a rare sight. Machines will replace humans in performing the most repetitive jobs. However, this expected robotization and automation of repetitive processes will not be the only or even the most important change that we are likely to see in the future labor market. What will work be like in the future?
Departure from rigid structures
Contemporary trends in organizational design tend to favor loose employee networks and relaxed structures. Even today, companies are gradually abandoning the traditional corporate roles. Modern structures centered around projects will replace rigid chains of command that span across the board from rank-and-file laborers to CEOs. Such changes are driven by the pursuit of efficiency. Managers in companies that sell innovation and new ideas are well aware that project teams generate innovation and ideas more effectively. Teams in such companies are equal in status and created ad hoc with little regard for their members rankings in company hierarchy. Being promoted overnight to project manager is no longer unusual. The key is to be intellectually flexible, creative and imaginative rather than clinging to job descriptions. The ability to adjust to meet new challenges, instantly forge new relationships and resolve problems by thinking out of the box is bound to become the competency most sought after by recruiters.
Skype replacing the office
Even today, an excellent example of progress in working time and workplace flexibility is available. It is the company which owns the WordPress platform. Its employees do not hang out at a coffee machine. No wonder, as they are scattered in dozens of locations around the world and only talk to one another via webcams. There is another example that is much more familiar. The same model has been employed to create the top products of Apple under the arch-management of Steve Jobs. Having been tested on small start-ups, the operating model is now increasingly adopted by corporations employing thousands. The advantage of this work system is the ability it affords to tap into the most creative minds and rare competencies across geographical barriers. Needless to say, the system comes with a cost advantage. Companies stand to derive substantial benefits from granting their manager’s the freedom to negotiate pay with home-based freelancers located somewhere across the globe. According to a McKinsey report, the number of freelancers registered on platforms that list experts for hire will grow by as many as 500 million within the next decade. Recruiters will use such listings to find valuable minds, skills and competencies.
Artificial intelligence to replace excel
As I ponder just how revolutionary our time is, I am reminded of scenes that unfolded at workplaces only a dozen plus years ago. I think of friends telling me about their first encounters with merchandising. Back in the day, people responsible for enticingly displaying goods in stores used to put in dozens of miles a day and write their sales reports by hand. Based on analyses and the expert knowledge acquired with experience, they decided how many cans of a particular beverage to place in a particular store on a given week. The people who started their careers in those early days cannot help but smile with sentiment when reminiscing about them. Who would ever think that the primary tool of a newly-recruited merchandiser would be a smartphone with an app that communicates with systems that help run in-store sales and wholesale operations, forecast turnovers and manage supply chains. The app uses data from such systems to keep sales people up to date on the expected demand for goods, product range seasonality and to recommend modifications where needed. The competitive advantage is not provided by expert knowledge and experience but by having the system itself. This plainest example shows how a sales forecasting application relying on huge quantities of data may become a powerful weapon in the hands of even a novice employee. A few dozen lines of code will relieve the employee of the most toilsome tasks.
We are all pioneers
No one can accurately predict all consequences of labor market transitions. Given the lightning speed of current developments, we are unable to assess the costs and benefits of digitization, robotization and the fading of traditional organization structures fast enough. The biggest optimists claim that robotization and artificial intelligence will enable many to spread their wings. Relieved by modern applications, we will finally be given the time to think creatively, learn knew things and acquire new skills.
Scene from Charlie Chaplin’s movie “Modern Times”