Flipping the Narrative on Automation in the Workplace

A brighter future of work
Jun 3, 2019 10:10 AM ET

Posted on Deloitte

For years, the dominant "future of work" narrative has been one of divisions, contrasts, and competition. But what if there’s a counter-narrative? One where technology augments (not replaces) humans. One that’s less about skills training and more about nurturing human capabilities. And one where we partner across cultures, sectors, and continents to extend our capabilities.

Building human capabilities in an automated workplace

We're already seeing indications that this brighter future is achievable. Taking advantage of this opportunity will require businesses to commit to a social leadership agenda that supports workers in building the human capabilities they will need to succeed in a new technological era, and fostering collaborative partnerships that ensure all learners develop the skills to participate in the workforce of the future.

Augmenting, not replacing, humans through automation

The most forward-looking organizations are using technology to augment humans, freeing up their capacity to leverage what makes them truly human. As described in a recent Harvard Business Review article,1 companies like Autodesk and General Electric are building and using tools that allow employees to use artificial intelligence (AI) to do their work faster and better. These productivity gains are also being harnessed in developing countries. For example, the GSMA mAgri initiative has helped mobile network operators such as Airtel and Vodafone leverage human-centered design to develop effective, commercially viable mobile services for farmers in emerging markets.2

Educating tomorrow's workforce

The second part of the counter-narrative requires that we revisit our traditional notions of "learning," tipping the balance in favor of nurturing enduring human capabilities over training for technical skills. If human capabilities really are the future, we need to rethink our approach to educating tomorrow’s workforce—from classrooms to corporate offices, and in both developed and developing countries around the world.

Working together in partnership

The third part of the counter-narrative requires that we rethink the ways we partner across cultures, sectors, and continents. Partnerships across organizations and geographies will play an important role in this effort, as organizations tap into their broader ecosystems to extend their own capabilities.

For example, the nonprofit Team4Tech partners with companies to engage employees with global social impact projects that offer immersive leadership development. The impact of these projects serves to benefit both the participants and the impacted communities.

Corporate social leadership is key

The hallmark of the brighter future is corporate social leadership. We are at a critical time as a society, one in which customers, employees, and society are looking to corporations to step up. Major global players like Amazon, Target, and Salesforce are responding, taking actions like raising worker wages3 and donating time and profits to social causes.4

Is social leadership a long-term sustainable business strategy? Evidence suggests that it is. According to Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends report, 55 percent of surveyed consumers will pay extra for products sold by companies committed to positive social impact. The report also cites studies that have demonstrated a direct correlation between organizations’ corporate social responsibility index rankings and their financial profitability, and that "purpose-focused companies... outperformed their S&P 500 peers by a factor of eight."

Leaders make it happen

As companies take on larger social leadership roles, employees at all levels will need strong leadership capabilities to ensure that these corporations can achieve broader social impact. Fortunately, social impact projects are one of the best avenues for employees to hone those capabilities, as they provide unique opportunities to collaborate across sectors and geographies while developing enduring capabilities like empathy, adaptability, and cultural intelligence.

While automation and AI will certainly play a role in shaping the global future of work, we also have an opportunity to create a future that reflects and celebrates the best of what makes us human.