In the original Terminator movie, there’s a classic scene where the hero, Kyle Reese, warns Sarah Connor that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is coming for her.
“It’s out there!” Kyle says. “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop… ever.”
I dare say many of us feel like Sarah Connor these days. We’re bewildered, and more than a little scared that a robot will one day come and terminate our job.
That’s completely understandable, given the pace of change and the disruptive effects of technology in the economy. Since the arrival of the Web a few short decades ago, the way knowledge and information is shared has been profoundly altered, changing the way we work and learn.
The web has also spun off new industries. Today, activities like cybersecurity, the internet of things, big data, nanotech, additive manufacturing, and autonomous and connected systems are all legitimate economic pursuits — like sequels to the Terminator.
Klaus Schwab, the head of the World Economic Forum, called all this activity the “fourth industrial revolution,” which he says is “characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”
The rise of the machines
What that will mean in terms of economic prosperity, we can only guess. But it’s clearly not progressing in a linear way like other industrial revolutions. It’s evolving exponentially, and has been enabled, largely, by the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence (AI), which seeks to augment human reasoning but may wind up replacing it entirely.
When people talk about automation, most of us probably imagine a robot arm on a factory assembly line. And, for much of the past few decades, that was a reasonable way to think about automation, because of its focus on replacing human physical labor with machines.
But that image is obsolete. A recent PwC study revealed that about 38% of today’s jobs in the United States could be automated in the next 15 years. Last year, a U.S. report from the White House showed that about 3.1 million drivers working today could have their jobs automated by autonomous vehicles. Not only are factory and transportation jobs under threat, but AI will be replacing humans in ways we haven’t been expecting in jobs we thought were safe, like real estate brokers, paralegals, radiologists and accountants. In fact, the pace of AI-related transformation is so quick that we might still have taxi drivers in the streets protesting Uber drivers when Uber drivers start protesting autonomous vehicles.
The sheer number of soft and technical skills already required by most modern companies is exploding. At the same time, the skills our workers have are relevant for less and less time — a trend accelerated by AI. Today, the timed obsolescence for skills is shorter than for a single career. If we don’t adapt and improve our skills as we work, our jobs could be automated in part or in full.
So what can we do? Is there any defense against the relentless march of technology?
I don’t think there’s any need to arm ourselves Sarah Connor-style against the rise of the machines — at least not yet. But, I do think we need to do things differently.
Training to stay relevant
I think the answer to the challenge of AI in the workforce will be to end the monopoly of schools in the education of our people. The only way for companies and employees to stay relevant in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be for all organizations to get into the “learning business.”
The pace of AI-driven change means it’s no longer enough to educate people for a few years, then put them to work. No longer is it the case that you can go to school for 20 years then work for 40 in most professions. A true lifelong approach to learning is quickly becoming mandatory, and the learning enterprise is going to be the business of every business.
This doesn’t mean that companies will have to become schools, but it will mean substantive changes to the culture of professional development. Education will need to evolve beyond the compliance-driven model driven by HR that we see in many workplaces. It will mean that all managers will have to develop learning plans for their people, and that employees will take greater responsibility for self-directing their learning using technology.
The good news is that, of all the generations of workers, the millennial generation is prepared to do exactly that. After all, most millennials went through school with digital learning experiences. Their homes are digital and connected. And a recent study revealed that three-quarters of millennials believe that access to technology in the workplace makes them more effective at work.
Training ROI is clear
To compete and win in an AI-driven world, companies will need to create an on-demand learning enterprise to ensure employees are able to keep pace, while creating an environment to attract and retain the best workers. Companies that are already finding success with digital learning experiences are learning that, with modern, data-rich learning technology, they’re easily able to show that learning is happening, and competency is being built.
That’s important, because the ROI on learning is clear. Studies show that learning drives engagement, which helps companies’ bottom lines. For example, Deloitte’s study, entitled “Becoming Irresistible: A New Model for Employee Engagement,” highlighted that organizations with a vibrant learning culture had 30% to 50% higher employee engagement and retention rates compared with other companies. And, as we all know, higher engagement and retention rates are excellent predictors of productivity.
So, while it’s absolutely true that we live in a disruptive time, there is opportunity to improve the way we work in all of this disruption if we harness it properly and efficiently. For example, organizations should consider certifications focused around mastery and demonstrated competency, not seat time and tenure. With this approach, workers would get credit for what they actually know, not how much time they’ve spent in training.
The Terminator may be coming, and it may indeed be inevitable and unstoppable. But whether or not our careers and companies survive — that’s up to us. Building a culture of learning at our workplaces, and embracing lifelong learning as individuals will go a long way to building a better, stronger future.