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Good OM Reading: Robots Probably Won’t Steal Jobs

June 9, 2015

hbr“There is no shortage of angst about the relentless advance of digital technology and what it means for the work force, if not humanity,” writes The New York Times (June 8, 2015). Dire warnings have come from no less than Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates. So, to paraphrase many recent headlines, “will robots eat our jobs?”

Not necessarily, according to two new entries to the debate. One is a lengthy cover article in The Harvard Business Review (June, 2015), “Beyond Automation: Strategies for Remaining Gainfully Employed in an Era of Very Smart Machines.” The other is a new McKinsey study, “A Labor Market That Works: Connecting Talent With Opportunity in the Digital Age.”

The McKinsey study analyzes and forecasts the potential impact of so-called digital talent platforms. The report looks at three types of such platforms: job-finding and employee-seeking websites (such as Monster.com and LinkedIn); marketplaces for services (Uber and Upwork, for example); and data-driven talent discovery tools (like Evolv and Knack). By 2025, McKinsey estimates, these digital talent platforms could add $2.7 trillion a year to global gross domestic product–and companies that make efficient use of the digital platforms can increase their productivity by up to 9%.

The HBR article concedes the advance of automation, but adds: “Instead of seeing work as a zero-sum game with machines taking an ever greater share, we might see growing possibilities for employment. In an era of innovation, the emphasis has to be on the upside of people. They will always be the source of next-generation ideas and the element of operations that is hardest for competitors to replicate.” Competitive advantage will be lost by those organizations infatuated with technology alone. Automation, the article states, is often useful but rarely a game winner for most companies. “That realization will dawn as it becomes increasingly clear that enterprise success depends much more on constant innovation than on cost efficiency.”

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