Prime the knowledge force for the automation age

Yasho V. Verma        Last Updated: January 4, 2017  | 21:32 IST
Prime the knowledge force for the automation age

Yasho V. Verma
I would like to believe that my grandchildren will find comfortable jobs one day as per what they are learning today in terms of both academics and skills. The idea that half of today's jobs across the world may totally disappear has pushed me into thinking austerely about the future of my posterity.

Suddenly people all over are growing concerned about advancing automation. Various studies across industries have shown that it reduces employment potential by 10 per cent to 40 per cent. The present worker is a knowledge worker. He has traditionally required management education, knowledge of systems and processes that enable him taking decisions in different business and market situations.

Machines in their phase of origin took over soiled and dangerous jobs from workers  predominantly in industries like textile, steel, jute, copper, automotives et al. With development of technology, machines took over dull technology. Computers were born leading to relevance of knowledge and advent of smart workers.

Last week, a friend met a retired professor who taught textile designing to his students in one of India's premier institutes based in Ahmadabad. He is now one amongst the few living legends across the world possessing an ancient art form of hand braiding, a very innovative technique for creating seamless garments. Historically, this may have started as a dire need to acquire a skill with minimum tools to meet a certain kind of geographical requirement. The camel girths in the regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat were made and presumably still are essential to hold the saddle upright in the desserts, may be the scale would vary now given the physical labor that has been replaced with automated machines or simply put, finely processed leather or other rugged cloth material would have replaced those hand-braided animal wool or hair girths. A skill then, an art now. One cannot help but notice the diminishing sense of utility attached to hand skills which was evident once upon a time.

There is a manufacturer-turned-importer in Varanasi who had hundreds of laborers working on furnaces or lamps to handcraft beautiful irregular asymmetrical glass beads.

The city sometime back had over 1,33,000 workers in the trade but was left with perhaps 1/3rd in the last few years. The locals say that not just exports but even the regional market has taken a hit, there are now beads that are churned out from machines more regular in shape and pattern uniformity and a scale difficult to match up to by these humble hand-skilled wagers.

A young intern working with a renowned clothing label feels there is lack of originality and she is asked to search and copy designs of international brands from the web and get them developed with few modifications suiting Indian tastes and pockets. She strongly feels she can conceptualize and develop better designs having spent half a decade in an academy only if the prototypes can be funded well. She has technical knowhow and is updated on applications that will help create scientifically superior product designs but feels the faith in trying something new is absent and pushes her into dungeons of obliteration rather than into creation or innovation.  

These are just few personal experiences, but I presume the next era may slowly take away decisions from employees which may appear threatening. It looks that humanity is seeing elimination in its face due to over reliance or burdening the function of Artificial Intelligence (AI). One CEO of an AI Company is sure that lot of jobs belonging to executives of today will be done by machines of tomorrow.

I met a carpenter who only had elementary education in his small village in Uttar Pradesh, had forbidden use of old tools in his team and invests a decent amount periodically on buying the latest gadgets. He is happy serving a client request as per their web search results and is competitive when it comes to quality of contemporary material used in interiors.

Basically, he is excellent in executing an idea that came out from the advanced technologies. He may still lack the knowledge and expertise of disseminating knowledge about his work and existence to a wider audience and depends largely on word-of-mouth; nonetheless it was impressive to see that he has learnt as much to upgrade himself to stay in business.

At sidelines of his work at my neighbors' house he also informs me that if he does not he may find it hard feed his family of six given there are many ecommerce websites offering interiors and looks of rooms or apartments. Had he been not in India, he would have created a local brand for himself already with some help from techpreneurs in provinces under a social initiative. But I hope this still sounds hopeful, I wanted to break the chain of despairing thoughts I had realized I created in the first half of this article.

It is obvious that automation is intimidating. It starts with a baseline of what people do in a given job which is then taken over by machines, sooner or later. The future will hold a daunting challenge for employees to turn into 'super knowledge workers' and handle things which machines of tomorrow will not be able to handle.

They will have to understand and feel the chaos in complexities in tandem with a specific consumer market that cannot be quantified for Artificial Intelligence to handle and see a pattern in these hundreds of chaotic complexities, which will form one small pattern in his mind and provide clarity to take a decision. The process will be augmentation and with that kind of a mindset and knowledge, a worker will come to see smart machines as partners and collaborators in creative problem solving.

I find companies like TCS are trying to form a pattern or some form of a systematic approach in dealing with sea of people at AIIMS, the apex healthcare and medical research body. Last year the OPD transformation project streamlined the flow of patient movement visiting 21 OPDS. The technology introduced has been benefitting over 3 million people since then, reducing average waiting time from 6 hours to 2 hours and managing overcrowding. This digitization is also helping tightening patient records and schedules well bearing a positive impact on overall patient care.

Besides optimization, TCS created necessary infrastructure - a new waiting hall with 2550 seating capacity was created, older halls were refurbished, 120 patient care coordinators were introduced for assistance and guidance, web kiosks and large LED real time appointment status boards were put, centralized patient registration centers with 52 counters catering to 10,000 patients per day were introduced. TCS designed the way-finding solution and introduced information dissemination methodologies.

A good example of public-private collaboration, can serve as a lesson in automation and simultaneous job creation or maintaining employability while also adding flexibility. Workers will have to keep upgrading their knowledge; but algorithms cannot be developed for complex brain stimuli like empathy or intuition. For e.g. In above example the 120 patient assistance coordinators may not be taught the degree of empathy they must demonstrate towards patients, that has no set coding or machine learning but may be a distinctive factor in times to come.

Experts at Harvard, Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby suggests five paths towards employability:


Algorithms are spinning success stories when it comes to self driven cars or in times to come we will see automated travel experiences when algorithms will take advanced forms. Roles of workforce may change but must not be reduced.  The super knowledge workers will have to have top-down view of various issues to win the augmentative technology era. We could restructure the threat of automation as an opportunity for augmentation. It is not less cognitive or physically challenging work that necessarily must witness success in automation, it should be way of doing work rather than work. Let us not overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor and discount the argument or ignore the strong complementariness that increase productivity, earnings and also augment further demand for skilled labor.

The writer is a Management Thinker & Philosopher, a Mentor and a Strategy Consultant, an Academician and a Veteran in consumer durables and retail. He was formerly associated with LG Electronics as its COO and Director. He is also a member on boards of banks and a few other business houses across various industry verticals and consults them on plans and policies. He is a PHD in organisational behaviour from IIT-Kharagpur. He can be reached at yasho.v.verma@gmail.com

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