When NASA introduced one of the first transistor-based computers – the vast IBM 7090 – to their space programme in 1961, they assumed the new technology would replace its human predecessors. Until this point, NASA’s ‘computers’ had been human; a team of African-American female mathemeticians.
Rather than accepting impending redundancy though, the team’s manager, Dorothy Vaughan, made it her mission to learn the programming language needed to work the 7090, taught her staff and ensured their future as the technology’s essential human mediators. It’s a story beautifully captured in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures, and one that perfectly echoes an altogether more contemporary battle between man and machine.
Like Vaughan and her team, today’s workers find themselves facing a growing technological presence, this time in the form of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and robotics. What’s more, these intelligent technologies are encroaching not just on blue collar jobs, but higher-skilled white collar roles too.
The robots aren’t just coming, many of them are already here. How can white collar workers make sure they stay ahead of the digital curve?
Automation across every sector and business function
In 2017, Construction Robotics unveiled their second generation Semi-Automated Mason, or SAM for short. Capable of laying up to 3,000 bricks a day, SAM can outperform its human counterparts five times over.
While no doubt a marvel of engineering efficiency, SAM represents a crucial juncture in the power struggle between human and robotic talents in the workplace. If a machine can operate more quickly, cheaply and sustainedly than human labourers, where does this leave them?
It’s a question being asked across an increasing number of sectors, blue and white collar alike. In HR, an AI-driven recruitment assistant known as Mya is speeding up the employment process by ‘interviewing’ candidates via a chatbot and automatically scheduling face-to-face meetings with the most suitable applicants. In marketing, an artificially-intelligent platform called Albert is using a combination of predictive analytics, natural language processing and machine learning to run multichannel marketing campaigns requiring a minimum of human intervention.
Applications like these get smarter the more they take on, which is just one of the reasons for the mounting sense of unease felt by many in the business world. According to their 2018 Workforce of the Future report, PwC found that 37 percent of workers are anxious about the long-term prospects of their employment due to automation. Even the highest-skilled roles are becoming increasingly automated. Thanks to technology able to think and learn for itself, no job is safe from the rising tide of digitization.
Yet, with the right mindset, it’s possible to view this technological disruption as an opportunity, rather than something to fear.
Evolving your skills and digitizing your career
Just like Vaughan did before us, the key to ensuring your white collar career survives the AI revolution is to evolve. While the 7090 could undoubtedly beat the human computers at number-crunching in terms of speed, accuracy and scale, it took human analysis to give the figures meaning.
Digitization may be making its presence felt in white collar sectors, but the type of tasks that can be automated tend to be the more repetitive and administrative; classifiying job applications according to a set criteria, or adjusting pay-per-click advertising budgets, for example. They’re the tasks that eat up a good deal of white collar workers’ valuable time, so having them taken care of can free your time up to focus on more creative, critical and ultimately ‘human’ work. Even technology capable of superhuman levels of data mining needs a human eye to put it into context.
There’s so much that we bring to the commercial arena that technology simply cannot replicate, and that’s where the future of human business expertise can be seen to lie. Advanced quantitative skills, culturally-sensitive leadership, empathy, teamwork, coaching and pure unadultered innovation; these are the kinds of areas where humans excel. In fact, the shift away from menial white collar tasks could even fuel new opportunities to prosper, as we hone human dexterities that enable us to reach higher and more strategic tiers of business.
As the Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) assert, “the real challenge posed by digitalization […] is preparing workers for the labour market of the future and in so doing improving every individual’s chance to benefit from digital transformation by moving into developing sectors and professions.”
The means to refining these human skills can be found through dynamic and high-impact online learning. With a strong focus on interaction, immersive content and peer-to-peer networking, an Online MBA programme can help you acquire the insight and perception, not to mention the cutting-edge business acumen, needed to succeed in the age of digitization – on your own terms and without interrupting your career.
Just like Dorothy Vaughan, in the era of digital transformation, we should be ready to transform ourselves. Find out more about our Online MBA by filling in our online form on the right.