Are we on the verge of ‘peak human’?

by John Hilton06 Oct 2016
Consider for a moment what happened to the horse. 

In the early 20th century, they were central to the workforce, said Ravin Jesuthasan, author of Lead the Work and managing director of Willis Towers Watson. 

The train was their only competition, meaning horses were transport essential for agricultural processes. But around 1910 they were replaced by machinery, and “peak horse” had come and gone. 

Now, in this era of rapid change in our work processes, the possibility of “peak human” needs to be considered, said Jesuthasan.

“I’m not saying all human jobs are going to be replaced by technology,” he added. 

“But there’s definitely an enhanced supplementary role for robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) – and that’s having an impact on the way companies will look at sourcing, employing and paying people.” 

Jesuthasan said that for many organisations, the future relevance of their business will rely on quite different elements than those that underpin their work now. 

It doesn’t matter if your business is manufacturing, financial services or health care, he said. Your future is likely to hinge on the ability to use digital media and emerging technologies in a way that is core to your business model, rather than a “peripheral enabler”. 

This means that companies need to solve the problem of how to go about developing capability to harness these new technologies, which may require a fundamental change in skill sets of the people working in the business and a new approach to acquiring scarce talent.

Jesuthasan said there are two things, in particular, which are changing the world of work:

Democratisation of work – increasingly work is being fragmented and being pushed around the world to be done in the most efficient way

Technological empowerment – the exponential rise in the power of computing is transforming work in a significant way

He cited a recent McKinsey report from 2012 which indicated that the combination of these two factors is leading, worldwide, to a deficit of 40 million people in skilled roles and a surplus of 90 million in unskilled jobs. 

“We’re not talking blue versus white collar here; any job that is highly routinised is something that increasingly, AI and robotics will replace,” said Jesuthasan.

Moreover, some research suggests that up to 47% of jobs could be replaced by AI. 

“We don’t think whole jobs will necessarily be replaced at this level but the routine elements are likely to be impacted,” he said. 

“Imagine a marketing manager who spends 30% of their time analysing data and making pricing and product decisions based on that. 

“This work can be done by a machine so, in future, this person either does 30% more of other work, is paid 30% less or, most likely, there are 30% fewer marketing managers in the organisation.”

But it’s not all “Brave New World”, said Jesuthasan.

“While some jobs will be made obsolete, new jobs that don’t exist and we can’t yet conceive will be created.”

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