Is Technology Downskilling or Upskilling Us?

le 12 juin 2016 par


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New technologies accelerate the mutation of skills required by the various tasks we perform. How can we manage the obsolescence of our own skills? Why will we have to value skills differently tomorrow?

The impact of technologies on employment is mostly qualitative: they downskill and upskill us.

New technologies are accused of many evils, including reducing the number of jobs. This is not new, the luddites in England complained about the same problems two centuries ago. The press and the economic literature today publish many articles all more or less alarmist about the disappearance of jobs because of technology and robots in particular.

Technological disruptions – and digital is far from being the only one at work here – have an impact on employment, yet the quantitative impact hides a more important one: the qualitative impact. Technologies have a double effect on skills. They make some of them obsolete (downskilling us). At the same time, they provide access to previously inaccessible skills creating a sort of “open source” of skills (upskilling us).

With the advent of the GPS a taxi driver no longer needs precise knowledge of street location (downskilling). Meanwhile anyone can become a taxi driver (upskilling). Similarly, the machinery maintenance operator, with the help of augmented reality glasses, can now maintain many more hardware with much less training. The taxi driver and the maintenance agent are not alone. Nurses will work with robots that will flawlessly practice intravenous. Surgeons will be able to perform more complex operations faster and with less risk. Doctors can now perform ECGs, complex blood tests, conduct echography inspections relatively easily, or make diagnoses previously inaccessible to their skills. Lawyers can rely and analyze jurisprudence texts with the accuracy and speed formerly reserved to statisticians, etc. The glass half empty sees all of them penalized, the glass half full sees increases in their skills, improvement in their productivity, freeing some of their availability for more activities and for serving a larger customers or patients base.

New technologies also allow the arrival of new entrants into activities formerly more or less controlled by corporations who identified themselves around the skills or qualifications they had. But with technology and upskilling, some skills formerly more or less rare or controlled, become widely available goods, even commodities like open source software. “Skills-on-demand” for oneself is coming in many fields.

At the same time new skills become essential, creating new inequalities

New technologies not only impact the former craftsmanship; they create a need for new expertise in very large quantities. For instance, the 3D printer requires completely new skills in many fields: new materials combinations, material resistance evaluation, industrial design, product marketing design, machinery management, laser technologies, oxygen processes, powders thermodynamics, etc. These skills are still not mastered enough (raising new needs in R & D skills); not sufficiently taught (raising new demands for trainers); and poorly implemented (raising new needs for engineers and field technicians).

While these new skills become necessary, a new inequality emerges between those for whom it is inherent to their trade to become constantly obsolete (doctors and more generally scientists, programmers, etc.) and those who believed that their knowledge would stay unchanged at least for their career-time. For the latter, such as taxis, cashiers or plumbers, the surprise is brutal. But let’s not fool ourselves, we are all affected by obsolescence because some of our skills, whoever we are, evolve as commodities by the day.

All new technologies are both destructing and creating jobs, destructing and demanding new skills.

If technology gives access to new skills, allowing more individuals to be served and to serve, and real needs in society exist in huge numbers, why worry about unemployment?

It is possible (though not proven) that more jobs are quantitatively adversely affected by the downskilling than by the demand for new skills. But it is also likely that many new jobs are made possible by the new upskilling and the commoditization of some skills. It is then necessary to address the paradox of coexistence between large unemployment in our societies and evidence of significant needs for work.

Indeed, the labor needs in our societies are enormous, the word is no exaggeration. Just look at the needs in proximity services and proximity economy, call centers, logistics of the last mile, streets cleaning, property and machinery maintenance, all jobs related to maintaining or creating social links (especially for serving the young and the old), many jobs related to health care and community care, jobs in safety, security, training and education, etc. In most of these activities, the skills are mostly “hi-touch”, that is, where a human takes care of another human, usually one at a time. Human jobs in human and proximity care are considerable. Why worry then? After all, technology will bolster skills, enabling men and machines to work together to serve the greatest number, etc. One may be inclined to think that the situation will improve by its natural course.

But the question is not that of labor needs and people resources, nor even in their mismatch (when the skills of some do not match the needs of others) but that of how we can pay for these jobs and how they can provide a decent living. This is not a technology issue but a question of rent and its distribution or redistribution, in a new framework. It is not about technology but about society and culture.

The downskilling/upskilling conundrum submits three issues. A management challenge for people and their skills in all organizations and society as a whole. A labor compensation issue because upskilling, meaning commoditization and less corporatist protection, will mean lower wages (as recently demonstrated in the taxi driver world). A transfer issue when users cannot pay for work as much as is socially expected at a decent wage level (it is nice to have someone taking professionally care of your old parents, but can you afford it at the current required wage level?). These problems are related and to solve them it will be necessary to deconstruct privileges and corporatism, in order to deeply modify existing systems, to change part of our work cultures, and finally, and above all, to revisit our social model.

The implications are particularly important in businesses, society and individual behavior.

Companies must learn to manage flows of skills and not stocks anymore

For businesses, this means they need to observe and understand where and how fast will evolve the obsolescence of their internal skills that make the core of their “human capital”. They may use provocative efforts with exercises that could be called destroyyourskills.com like, Jack Welch at General Electric in the late 90s, who created a movement, destroyyourbusiness.com, as a means to make everyone understand that the Internet would disrupt business models. Similarly, today we must understand how each skill becomes obsolete or is becoming a commodity, and how fast. Corporations must thoroughly review their modes of learning. They must understand how systems, structures, current cultures actually paralyze rather than encourage the inevitable evolution of skills. This occurs for example when skill definitions are too closely related to job descriptions, or when linking transfers or promotions to the acquisition of specific skills, etc. Corporations must also simultaneously consider the expertise not only of internal employees but also of those contributors, whatever their status, that are external to the company and who possess the skills needed but are not available inside. New external skills often become mission critical. They have to encourage the optimal combination between inside and outside resources in ways far different from the old outsourcing logic. In short, corporations must reinvent their approach to skills based on fast moving flows of skills rather than stocks.

Society must recheck how it values productivity and proximity … but it is a cultural and political change

For society at large this implies revisiting the learning ecosystem. We need to review our economic and social model to re-invent a XXI century capitalism. Essential jobs will be carried out by combinations of men and machines. So-called low-skilled jobs, yet essential to our social comfort at large as well as for society to live-better, should be more valued so that those who exercise them may live decently. This implies reviewing the political model of our social choices, including our transfers and our world of work, and up to the very redefinition of many professions. Initiatives such as universal income or ones that can be seen in local economies promoting solidarity and sharing, even if they are still very patchy and poorly defined, are clearly headed in the right direction.

Individuals must become independent and develop… easy to say.
Individuals, are the ultimate drivers of change to come, which means that we must all learn to accept our obsolescence. Since we are all becoming a little bit more outdated day after day, we must acknowledge that we are the actors of our future and act accordingly. But let’s be clear, not everyone is capable of handling one’s obsolescence. The 50-year-old cashier at the supermarket who sees that his job will be given to an automatic or self-service machine, does not have the same stamina to manage his autonomy as the Python programmer seeing the arrival of the next generation of programs and starting to learn to code in a new language. Both can « pivot » as is said in start-up jargon, but the former often needs more assistance.

Develop our capacity to unlearn

What our irresistible obsolescence reveals (or puts out in the open), whatever our responsibilities, is that the ability to unlearn, as much as learning, becomes a competitive advantage for both organizations and humans. It forces us to have a more and more humble attitude as to our “expertise”. It also pushes us to embrace a more socio-political approach to technology.

See the French version

 

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