Surviving digital transformation will require self-reliance

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This post at first may seem like a bit of a downer. It is not meant to be! Rather, it should serve as a reality check for what lies ahead in the next two decades, when we’ll see technology-driven workplace disruption occurring at a pace that will leave — and already is leaving — major institutions woefully unprepared.

First the good news. A growing number of organizations are embracing emerging technologies to better serve customers, improve efficiency, discover new markets, and reduce operating and R&D costs. In a 2018 global survey by the Center for Creative Leadership, 72% of enterprise decision-makers said their organizations already have “successfully implemented a number of digital initiatives that improve or adapt its products and services, suggesting that the early stages of digital transformation are underway.”

A big part of digital transformation is rethinking how and where people do their jobs. In an article on the World Economic Forum’s website, Stephane Kasriel, CEO of online freelancer jobs platform Upwork, lists three essential “solutions” to the challenge of ensuring “the best, most inclusive outcomes” from digital transformation.

The third one on Kasriel’s list is “provide people with more freedom and flexibility.” No doubt, enterprises are moving in that direction — thanks to a combination of technology, need, and changing attitudes — as more and more employees are able to work remotely. This not only can make them more productive, it broadens the pool of potential employees. Enterprises no longer have to focus on applicants either living near the organization’s offices or willing to relocate.

Alas, the seeds of the worst part of technology-driven economic disruption — job losses and the resultant hardship on individuals and families, as well as negative repercussions to the economy — are planted in digital transformation. Let’s take the most optimistic prediction: Automation, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and other technologies that can perform jobs currently done by humans will produce a net gain in jobs over time. Spend five minutes on Google and you’ll find a dozen consulting firms or job experts making this claim.

But the term “net gain” obscures the reality that, even in a best-case scenario, there will be millions of winners and millions of losers — people who go from earning a paycheck to being unemployed or, worse, obsolesced because their skills no longer have value in the workplace. For those people on the wrong side of the net gains ledger, it’s a lot more than a math problem — it’s literally a matter of survival.

Which leads to Kasriel’s first two “solutions” — “rethink education” and “change worker protections from a safety net to a trampoline.” Regarding education, Kasriel accurately identifies the core problem.

“Fast technological change means that the people operating constantly evolving machines need to learn new skills – quickly,” he writes. “Our current education system adapts to change too slowly and operates too ineffectively for this new world.”

Absolutely true. Unfortunately, I see nothing to indicate this will change any time soon. It’s great that online skills training and education platforms such as Udemy, Coursera, and Lynda.com are trying to fill this void left by the lumbering institutions of higher learning, but college degrees still are used as a broad candidate filter for many organizations struggling to fill jobs or find freelance talent. Given the inherent cultural biases toward valuing higher education — perfectly reasonable, by the way — millions of young people will continue to place extremely expensive and time-consuming bets on a system that simply isn’t up to the task in the global digital economy.

Even less promising — at least in the United States — is the notion of radically revamping social and economic safety nets to create a “trampoline” designed to protect workers in the new economy.

“Our tax, healthcare, unemployment insurance and pension systems were all created for the industrial era, and they won’t serve anyone in the future if we can’t make significant reforms,” says Kasriel.

So what does it all mean? It means the velocity of change is accelerating beyond the ability of educational and governmental institutions to adapt. Organizations and individuals will have to rely on themselves to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to survive digital transformation.

Which brings us full circle back to some good news: In a very real way, knowing you must rely on yourself can be quite empowering.

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