As technology transforms our economy, one trend is getting more and more attention: the prospect that it will increasingly automate the work that we human beings do. And it’s not just low skilled, manual labor that’s at risk – “knowledge” work like operational analytics and marketing is also being taken over by sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms.
But other changes are also afoot, changes that could allow the human dimension of work to become more important. While it’s true that technology is taking over routine tasks from many workers, it is also reshaping many supply and demand trends that drive our global markets. It’s this second technology-driven shift that can prevent automation from eliminating jobs; but jobs will change.
How Technology Is Reshaping Markets
On the demand side, technology is providing customers with far more power than ever before – we have far more information about the options available to us and the ability to switch much more easily from one vendor to another if our needs are not being met. Many of us are also becoming more demanding – we are less and less willing to settle for standardized, mass market products when it is far easier to seek out the niche products that are tailored to our specific needs and context.
And, to add to the challenge for vendors, we are increasingly shifting from ownership to usage-based pricing models, paying only for the actual usage of the product or service, something that is made more feasible by technology that can monitor our usage. For example, using a small wireless device plugged into a car’s diagnostic port, some companies now allow consumers to pay for car insurance on a per-mile basis, making it economical for low-frequency drivers to be fully insured without subsidizing customers who drive more. As we reduce our spend on physical products, we are often shifting our attention and spend to meaningful experiences that enrich our lives.
Many of us are also using technology like ad-blockers to avoid being barraged with ads – rather than intercepting us to gain our attention, companies will need to provide so much value and assistance that we will seek them out. For example, one survey indicated that the use of ad-blockers among US Internet users had almost doubled between 2014 and 2018, reaching almost one third of the user base. The use of ad-blockers is just one signal of a much more fundamental trend: the erosion of trust in all our institutions – not just companies, but all institutions. Many increasingly believe that institutions are not serving our interests.
On the supply side, technology is generally helping to expand the array of product options while at the same time leading to compression of product life cycles. Technologies like additive manufacturing are often making it easier to produce highly tailored products at small scale. Where products still require large scale manufacturing facility, small product vendors can connect much more easily with large scale contract manufacturers and coordinate manufacturing activity at a distance. In addition, the proliferation of new product options and increasing information accessible to customers is contributing to compression of product life cycles as new products enter into the market more quickly to challenge previously successful products.
So, what’s the result? Standardized, mass market products and services are rapidly giving way to much more specialized, creative products and services in a growing array of markets. Rather than viewing us as indistinguishable “customers”, product and service vendors are increasingly realizing that we are each a unique person with distinctive and evolving needs and that their success will depend on understanding and addressing these needs. Rather than trying to intercept us with ads, they will need to become so helpful to us that word will spread and we will seek them out.
How This Will Change the Work We Do
As a consequence, the nature of work will likely undergo a profound transformation on two fronts. First, the machines will take over more and more of the routine tasks that defined work in a standardized, mass market product world. Second, the only way to create value in a more differentiated and rapidly changing product world will be to redefine work at a fundamental level to focus on distinctly human capabilities like curiosity, imagination, creativity, and emotional and social intelligence.
We’re generally going to see three different categories of work become more and more prominent in a rapidly changing economy. First, we will see more and more business for “creators”, people who can anticipate the rapidly evolving needs of individual customers and design and deliver creative and highly tailored products and services. In many respects, we will see the resurgence of craft businesses that are already emerging in areas like beer and chocolate. These craft businesses can enable more and more people to take their hobbies like woodwork and knitting and make a living from connecting with customers in a much deeper and lasting way.
Second, we will see a growing category of work for “composers” – people who deeply understand the aspirations and needs of small niches of customers and who can compose engaging and rewarding experiences for those people. This category will grow and become more and more rewarding as customers shift their focus from owning physical products to seeking out meaningful and memorable experiences. These experiences could range from tours of art galleries or gardens in a neighborhood to interactive experiences that help us to connect with others in richer and deeper ways. For example, a woodworker could host a gathering of woodworkers to share their experiences and gain inspiration from each other.
Finally, we will see a third category of work for “coaches” who will help customers achieve more of their potential in various domains. As an early indicator, we are seeing a growing number of “wellness” coaches who are helping us to stay well and improve our physical performance. But, as we seek to achieve more of our potential, we’re likely to see an expanding array of coaches in such diverse areas as dating and relationships, travel, entertainment, financial affairs and life-long learning. This coaching could also be in pursuits like gardening or helping people to express themselves more creatively through their attire or make-up.
What’s the result? Less and less work done by humans will be in the routine tasks that define most work today. In part, this will be because machines will be able to perform this work far better than we humans can. But a much more compelling reason will be because this work will be less and less relevant to what businesses will need to create value as customers generally become more demanding and their needs shift. The focus of work will shift to activity that draws on the far more human capabilities that machines will find much more challenging to replicate.
The truth is that we humans have an insatiable set of needs. As soon as our most basic needs for food and shelter are met, we generally begin to raise our sights and look for ways to achieve more and more of our potential as human beings. And here’s the wonderful truth: the needs that allow us to achieve more and more of our potential as human beings will likely be precisely the ones that drive the evolution of work in ways that also enable us to achieve more and more of our potential in our work. The emerging opportunities may not require college degrees, but they will require passion and a desire to connect with others in richer and more meaningful ways.
There’s little doubt that this transition will be challenging – it will force us to question some of our most basic assumptions about work and business. For example, companies will need to shift from viewing employees as a cost to recognizing them as an asset capable of creating ever expanding value. They will need to challenge the prevailing efficiency mindset and embrace a mindset that focuses on accelerating learning to address the rapidly evolving needs of customers.
But the bottom line is that technology is unleashing market forces that can reward those who address these challenges and marginalize those who ignore them.
And, far from depriving us of work and squashing our humanity, technology can provide us with the opportunity to focus on work and activities that will help us to achieve more and more of our potential. What better service could technology provide?
About the Author:
John Hagel is founder and co-chairman of the Center for the Edge at Deloitte and author of a number of best-selling business books.
This article first appeared in the Drucker Forum Series in Harvard Business Review