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Our digital future: Why there's nothing to fear

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When American inventor Thomas Edison, first brought the electric lightbulb to Great Britain in 1878 a British Parliament Committee noted it was not worthy of “the attention of practical or scientific men”. A chief engineer for the British Post Office even described the electric light as a sham. Similarly, one automobile inventor in the 1890s was told by his banker, “You’re crazy if you think this fool contraption you’ve been wasting your time on will ever displace the horse.” These are just some examples of how innovation and change have met with resistance across the centuries.

Creative disruption—even creative destruction—is inevitable. Consider the evolution of music technology: from phonograph to radio to record player to 8-Track to cassette tape to compact disc to iTunes. At each stage, there have been early adopters as well as vocal resisters, but the revolution still marches forward, with or without you.

Workplace disruptions have been no different. The new replaces the old, everyone fears the worst, and the worst never materialises—unless we refuse to adapt. Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are simply the newest target of collective fear, scepticism, and resistance to change—but they’re also our greatest opportunity for transformational growth.

Here are my five predictions for what to expect as AI continues to disrupt the modern enterprise.

1.  Jobs won’t disappear—they’ll evolve

Every new technology was feared to put everyone out of work. It still hasn’t happened. Usually, the opposite is the case. Consider the implementation of automation in the manufacturing industry. A 2017 McKinsey report predicted that 30 per cent of all workers may be displaced by technology, and as with any new technology, there is a recurrent fear that the change will cause mass unemployment. Instead, what we are seeing is that after a period of readjustment, people find other jobs and the manufacturing sector is creating more jobs across multiple skillsets to accommodate the rise of automation.

2. Digitisation will continue

It may seem like our lives can’t get more digital than they already are. But, as McKinsey reported in 2017, “The forces of digital have yet to become fully mainstream. On average, industries are less than 40 per cent digitised, despite the relatively deep penetration of these technologies in media, retail, and high tech.”

The industries that were the least digitised included consumer packaged goods, automotive and assembly, and financial services. The most digitised industries were high tech, retail, and media and entertainment. In all sectors, there’s room for growth.

3. Individuals will adapt

As I touched on in my first point, when outdated industries and jobs are threatened by new technology, we can choose to dig in our heels or do the hard work of adapting to what’s coming.

In the town where I grew up, everyone either worked at the school or the local steel mill. When the mill shut down around 2002, it hit the community hard. But one group of workers looked for ways of applying what they already knew how to do to a new problem, and they ended up digging trenches for the fibre optic cable that was going throughout the area—a lucrative undertaking for years to come.

4. We’ll usher in the era of the digital nomad

Technology is enabling a much more egalitarian and nomadic society. Hierarchies are flattening, equality is prized more than ever, and I envision a day when the office building, I’m sitting in right now will cease to exist—even as the work itself continues.

Workfront acquired a company a few years ago, and with that acquisition came one employee who called himself a “digital nomad.” He didn’t own a car, or an apartment, or a house. He lived one month in Boston, the next month in Atlanta, and the next month wherever else he wanted. He used Uber and Lyft for transportation and stayed at various Airbnb properties. And he could log into work and keep up on his projects no matter where he went, as long as he had a Wi-Fi connection. I think we’ll see much more of this working style in our digital future.

Remote working, task switching, and juggling multiple things at once are second nature to the rising generation.

5. Work will get a lot smarter

Many of us are living the “smart life.” We can control our lights, heating/cooling, and security systems with our phones. Even our cars are equipped to help us reverse safely and alert us when we’re drifting out of our lanes.

But when we get to work, this goes out the window. We’re drowning in email and instant messages that are disconnected from our daily work. If we have to reschedule a meeting, it takes a 15-thread email chain to get everyone’s schedules in sync. We’re not exactly sure who’s drowning and who has bandwidth on our teams, so we assign blindly, and workloads are often uneven.

This disjointed, chaotic approach to work isn’t going to fly with digital natives – those who grew up on technology vs. adopting it as an adult – who are comprising an ever-larger share of our workforce. They expect everything at work to function as easily and seamlessly as Apple and Amazon. In fact, our 2020 State of Work report found that 96 per cent of knowledge workers already think that it should be as easy to find information at work as it is on Google. And I believe that, over time, it will.

I envision a day when your integrated work management system will notify you that your local train is running late, and you’re likely to miss that 8:00am meeting. So, the system automatically adds a meeting link, enabling you to join from home instead – and all of the documents related to the project are already in the system and available right at your fingertips. You finish that meeting and hop on the later train, getting a notification along the way that a co-worker has a document ready for your review. You complete the request on the train, and then you notice a second notification. The system is telling you that everyone in your 10:00am meeting is also available later that afternoon, so it asks if you’d like to reschedule, because you have three other pressing tasks that morning. With a single swipe, you click yes, and the system reschedules the meeting for you and sends out automated notifications. Integrated and “smart” digital work experiences like this aren’t as far away as we may think.

6. Fear is natural, but not necessary

Years ago, we were working with an employee of a multinational corporation that had several dispersed locations all in the same county. After meeting with Workfront, she was initially excited about saving time and doing her work digitally. But then she stopped returning our calls for a short spell. When we finally reached her again, she admitted that fear had taken over. She was worried that automating that process would put her out of a job. But she pushed through those fears and embraced the unprecedented productivity that modern work management technology can bring. As is usually the case, other departments and teams began to take notice and adopted the solution themselves. Today that employee is not out of a job, in fact she runs the global project management division for one of the most recognised brands in the world.

Resistance to sweeping change is normal. But if we’ve learned anything from the lightbulb, or the automobile, it’s that change is good and opens up a whole new world of opportunities to those who embrace it.

Richard Whitehead, Director of Product Marketing, Workfront