In the past couple of weeks, I had a series of conversations with CEOs and senior executives in different industries, and all the chats revolved around the same few issues. Though they hailed from very diverse sectors, all the corporate chiefs agreed on one point - that we were experiencing unprecedented technology developments and these were changing the way we have traditionally worked. While technology advances had been taking place in the past decades as well, the pace of change in the past few years has been staggering. And while these technology changes were upending traditional ways of doing work, they were also heralding an unparalleled growth in productivity and efficiency and throwing up numerous opportunities.
The flip side was that technology was also putting an enormous pressure on jobs. From robotics to cloud computing to automation and Internet of things, the march of technology was not only making it possible to set up new organisations and offices with fewer staff but also threatening existing employees.
In the past too, technology advances have threatened jobs and industries. The industrial revolution had destroyed many professions while giving rise to new ones. Machines started making products that labour used to earlier make by hand. It created enormous social upheaval as well.
The advent of PCs, and later the Internet, also had enormous impact on organisations and industries. They resulted in huge jumps in productivity while simultaneously destroying a number of jobs. But equally, a large number of jobs were created and the computing revolution gave rise to a number of new professions.
In previous technology revolutions, the most vulnerable were the unskilled and semi skilled - or the blue-collar - workers. White-collar workers came under pressure, but in most cases, the theory was technology did not dramatically impact white-collar work. It did create fewer new jobs in traditional functions, but it created new functions as well. For example, the PC and the spreadsheet altered the amount of time and effort it required for accountants to create balance sheets. And fewer low-level accountants were required. But jobs like hardware maintenance engineers, systems administrators, etc., were created.
The big difference this time seems to be that even white-collar and knowledge jobs are under threat. Automation in the IT and ITES industries has been able to take over functions that required extremely skilled workers earlier. Where it required a number of accountants to pore over data sets to find anomalies, a software programme can today do the same and in much less time. And software engineers are finding themselves at threat from bots that can code software just as well. Meanwhile, on the shop-floor and ware houses, robots are taking over the jobs of blue-collar workers.
Our cover story this issue looks at the phenomenon - both what organisations need to do as well as what workers need to do to remain relevant in this march of technology.