The robots are coming. The new wave of technological innovation is expected to fundamentally change the future of jobs. The debate on the impact on jobs, however, is controversial and there are more pessimists than optimists. That’s because most commentators rightly dismiss Luddite attitudes as a futile attempt to delay the inevitable. Yet they fall foul of the dangerous temptation to believe that the future of work is, in fact, going to be determined by external forces, the forces of technology and the market, that make it impossible for actors in the future of work to make change. This technological determinism is rife in puffy journalism in the subject and in many reports.

Any prediction on the future of work, be they optimistic or pessimistic, is bound to be uncertain. Responsible leaders should still ask the question what does the responsible design and development of automation and artificial intelligence look like. What is the future of work that we want? Next, what are they prepared to do to make this happen?

The International Labour Organisation Director-General, Guy Ryder, spoke at a debate on the future of work hosted in Rome last month and said “let us not be paralysed to think that we are bystanders as the future of work unfolds". Too many incorrectly think that wrong to think that market forces and technology are the only drivers for transformative change. Policy makers and organisations have real choices to create new markets and better jobs.

Essentially human skills

Robots don't tend to take away jobs, but only certain sorts of tasks and activities that are easier to replicate. It follows that certain workers whose tasks cannot be done by robots will become more valuable. These workers will only remain valuable so long as they remain best placed to perform these tasks. In a long enough time horizon, machines can do everything that humans can. As that will take the best part of a half century or more according to most A.I. experts,  the priority now is to ensure the most successful transformation in the short term.

Deloitte UK research, which looked at hundreds of job profiles and mapped them against the 2013 Oxford Martin study, identified 25  skills which are "essentially human", including empathy, communication skills, listening skills, and personal relationship skills. Beyond these, the proliferation of perceptiveness, creativity, spontaneity, intuitive mastery, tacit knowledge and problem-solving will all increase the abundance of good work. This is part of a longer-term shift across the UK economy to more high value, knowledge intensive work, and growing demand for more highly skilled workers.

A Very Good Company  

Let's take the example of "A Very Good Company", a fictional organisation, to shine the spotlight on what could be when automation goes right. A Very Good Company's situation is that it can benefit greatly from automation, it already has got brilliant people and wants to support them to be their best. A Very Good Company has a ‘high road' market strategy requiring higher skilled and rewarded workers to deliver product and service quality and innovation . It is far from the ‘low road’ market strategies based on cost competition, more associated with jobs that are repetitive, offer limited training, seek efficiency through downsizing and use performance systems to drive greater worker effort.  

Automation Will Transform, Not Replace, Human Work 

L.P. Willcocks and M.C. Lacity, authors of “Lessons and the Future of Automation and Work” , distinguish between robotic process automation and cognitive automation, which informs the nature of work and the skills required.

A small number of people with enough motivation to learn computer science, artificial intelligence and analytics will build the next generation of smart machines that drive forward automation with both of these service characteristics, either for vendors or larger in-house organisations. 

In the next five years, we expect that more and more work groups will be composed of both humans and software robots, each performing tasks for which they are best suited.The robots will very quickly extract, consolidate, and rearrange data for humans to assess and act upon. Humans will deal with new business requirements (which humans may later teach to the software robots), troubleshoot and solve unstructured problems, positively envision services for customers, and build relationships with customers.
— L.P. Willcocks and M.C. Lacity

A.I. is an ongoing risky decision-making process that requires value judgments from humans. A Very Good Company will still need to decide how much to trust cognitive automation. Mistakes causing real suffering will happen with unstructured problems and exceptional cases require complex judgments, and notably ethical ones, under conditions of uncertainty. This is demonstrated by a few examples.

The auditor has to decide which items to include or exclude, how to categorize them, what recommendations to give to the client, when to report questionable practices, to whom, and in what format. The medical practitioner has to decide which tests to commission, which findings to emphasize, and how to explain the possible courses of a disease process to patients and families who differ widely in background, knowledge, and curiosity. The teacher has to decide which topics are most important, what to emphasize (or minimize) in the current context (including time constraints, snow days, and epochal world events), which kinds of feedback are useful to specific students in specific contexts, and which kinds are better kept under wraps for now.
— Professor Gardner of the Good Project Harvard University


Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London in association with IPsoft predict the new role of Chief Innovation Officer who lead change in the report “FuturaCorp: Artificial Intelligence & The Freedom To Be Human”. This person will use technical knowledge, business strategy, tacit knowledge of the organisation and marketplace and creative thinking to get the best from the probabilistic outcomes of cognitive automation. Alongside this role, a technology broker will be buying advice and negotiating support to divisions across a company to ensure people have the right technology that is compatible. 

Jobs such as process analyst and system engineers will help to codify areas for automation leveraging their knowledge and experience in one area and then applying these new skills to other areas.

A new generation of data analysts will help companies make sense of the abundance of data generated by new technologies. Advances in natural interfaces, wearable devices, and smart machines will present new opportunities for user interface and user experience designers too. They will optimise the collaboration and productivity between people and machines making it easier to glean insights. 

This arena will especially suit entrepreneurs who will spot opportunities for automation and innovative use of data to optimise key decision making  There will be a slow march to automating even the complex tasks of professionals.

The misuse of data

Facebook's emotional contagion study is one example of the misuse of data. They came under huge criticism when people realised that they were manipulating their feeds to engender certain emotions. That would have never passed academic ethical review boards. 
There will be a new and very important kind of expertise—the ability to ensure that AI is used in ways that are fair, accessible and that do not compromise privacy or promulgate privileged information. The growth of cyber security might well pave the way for future roles like personal data guardians, white-hat hackers, privacy officers and other security workers - both inside and outside of organisations. There will, of course, be the rise of regulation and work for compliance and lawyers in this area, and the consequent increase in bureaucracy that people in organisations will work on.

Making it happen

A Very Good Company still requires a way to build the skills and workplace culture needed to create good jobs that add value to customers. 

These are just the outlines of roles that can be predicted at this stage. A Very Good Company understands that its employees already know how to innovate given an opportunity to do so. It will have a clear definition of why it's changing and a detailed design for the future, including organisation design, and key role and skill changes. A Very Good Company then follows the steps:

  • it lays down a framework for new skills, people and opportunities emerging in the organisation through automation  without overly intimidating its employees;
  • it holds idea generation sessions with employees then prioritise the most promising projects;
  • it helps individuals understand their motivators, interests and personality enabling them to get clear about what they want;
  • it aligns individual career goals with team and company needs, mapping individual's optimal career trajectory within the organisation.
  • iIt runs small experiments that reduce the risk and anxiety of change whilst providing feedback for individuals and teams about the best way forward.
[W]hen it comes to our careers, learning to pivot is Plan A. Pivoting, within our roles and throughout our careers, is the new normal…. Pivoting is a mindset and a skill set, and you can get better at both.
— Jenny  Blake, the author of Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One.

Good work

Media attention frequently focuses on wide-scale job losses. Too often organisations do follow suit.  One group of academics have observed that these decisions are  "made by omission as much as by commission….. [t]here is scope for employer choice over key components of job quality in a resource-constrained environment where quasi-market forces, competing institutional pressures and technological opportunities shaped but did not determine managerial priorities. ”

It is no doubt harder for organisations to creatively align technology with work but when employers equip employees with the skills, knowledge and support to make vital career pivots within the company then they will feel more confident, ambitious and less anxious about their future. The Work Foundation has it right that  “good” businesses find ways to work smarter together and to make sure people are still happy and engaged. They recognise companies don’t have ideas, but people do and they seek to build the relationships, bonds and team working that delivers the commitment, trust and resilience to support creativity and deliver results.  It's time to champion these organisations and spread the opportunity for good work. 

Martin Underwood is the Head of Career Strategy at Life Productions, helping professionals and organisations find a better career fit and take practical action through the fourth industrial revolution.