A recent Harvard Business Review article by Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby (June 2015, page 58) discusses five options people have to respond to encroaching automation. The premise is that computers and automation have gone from taking over the dirty and undesirable jobs to making decisions and replacing knowledge workers. As computers move into the realm of decision-making and complex problem-solving, the authors explain, people will find themselves out of work.
Consequently, they propose five steps to maintain career relevancy in an age of advanced automation. These steps favor different skill sets and goals. Each step, however, requires an educational pathway to learn new skills and demonstrate mastery.
Some tasks can never be done by a computer. Computers cannot, at least not yet, predict strategies that align with political, economic, social, and technological (PEST) trends. Knowledge workers will always be needed to assess the data and trends compiled by computers, but automation cannot synthesize such data into a comprehensible strategy.
As an example, Project Management Professionals (PMP) must synthesize a great deal of information regarding the project status, budget, and schedule. Certainly, computers provide the data but only a skilled project manager can make decision regarding various resources to address shortfalls in the schedule, for instance. Project managers learn and demonstrate these skills when they earn the PMP credential, a certification based on education, the body of knowledge, and experience.
Davenport and Kirby’s second approach to beating automation is to “step aside.” Computers, even Watson, remain un-human. Automation cannot build relationships, integrate team members, or inspire workers to achieve more. Stepping aside means allowing the computer to do its work while applying your skills as a knowledge worker to building emotional intelligence.
One example of stepping aside is the Professional Engineering Manager (PEM). Engineering managers most definitely rely on the calculations and methodologies that can only be conducted by computers. Yet, the overall vision and inspiration for research, development, and engineering work is a fully human endeavor. PEMs demonstrate interpersonal and visionary skills to guide and shepherd developments needed to advance technology and its role within a progressive society.
“Stepping in” is another approach to managing one’s career in an age of automation. Here, an expert codes, programs, and manages the very computers that are providing data and information for decision-making. A choice to “step in” requires a higher skill set with application of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) competencies.
To program and codify new learnings and to be able to take advantage of new opportunities, an individual will need to gain appropriate education and maintain higher skills. While specialty skills in programming might be required, more important analytical skills that allow a person to diagnose problems and needs will serve well for someone to “step in”.
Consider that computers routinely perform most of the calculations and output the necessary data for statistical process control. Yet, the data itself has no impact on continuous quality improvement until someone acts on the data. An error in programming may lead to declining performance rather than improved quality. Quality professionals, who are certified in Six Sigma, for instance, can step in to ensure data collection, assessment, and outputs are accurate.
Throughout history, people have made a name for themselves by working in a niche market. Automation will be profitable when it is applied to mass markets and bulk processes. The cost of developing software to replace an expert wine steward, as an example, would be cost prohibitive. Thus, stepping narrowly allows individuals to combat a job takeover by computer automation.
Another example of stepping narrowly is in the field of innovation. New Product Development Professionals (NPDP) must exhibit “T-shaped” skills: depth in one area but broad curiosities that serve customers in many ways. NPDPs not only align corporate strategic objectives with distinctive project goals and they must apply schedule, budget, and quality tools to commercialize new products that meet market needs. Unique certifications, like NPDP, demonstrate depth of knowledge and experience in a field like innovation while also exhibiting mastery of skills across relevant disciplines (engineering, marketing, and project management).
Finally, Davenport and Kirby note that nothing stands still, especially technology. It is unlikely you will lose your job to a computer if you are working on the next generation of applications and analytical intelligence. Therefore, stepping forward makes a deliberate approach to gaining and applying new skills that create next generation opportunities.
When an individual “steps forward,” s/he recognizes and applies emerging tools and techniques to existing situations. By stretching the platform, new opportunities can be captured for growth. An example of “stepping forward” is applying Scrum to traditional project management environments. Conventional project management focuses on upfront planning while the iterative Scrum methodology continually delivers value through tight customer interfaces. Applying the Scrum framework in new situations realizes new opportunities for growth and speed-to-market.
Adapting to Automation
Our work world is changing. Automation is advancing to the point that computers can begin to make some decisions and solve problems that were previously reserved for the human brain. We must adapt to a new working world and utilize computers to help our own careers.
Five steps have been proposed to adapt to automation and its encroaching battle for knowledge workers. We can step up, step aside, or step in. In other situations, we may need to step narrowly or step forward. In any case, however, today’s workers must continually evolve and develop new skills to stay ahead of the competition (human or computer!).
Gaining a professional credential is one way to demonstrate and validate your education and work experience. Learn more about gaining and maintaining professional certifications at Simple-PDH or contact me at 281-280-8717. It’s simple to study, learn, and earn!
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