Managing man and machine


Twenty years ago, there were fewer than 700,000 industrial robots worldwide; today, there are 1.8 million, and the number could soar to 2.6 million by 2019. Robots have also entered the services arena; 3-D printing can be used to make cars and aircraft; biotechnology is changing the way we produce food and medicines; and nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will transform numerous industries. Given these advances, it’s no wonder that many people fear for their jobs. This year, we surveyed more than 5,000 members of the public in 22 countries to find out what they think about some of the same issues we raised with CEOs: 79% believe technology will cause job losses over the next five years.


Yet CEOs still need people. Only 16% plan to cut their company’s headcount over the next 12 months – and only a quarter of them say it’s primarily because of technology. Conversely, 52% plan to hire more employees. Clearly, CEOs see the value of marrying technology with uniquely human capabilities. The skills they consider most important are those that can’t be replicated by machines. In fact, they’re precisely the qualities required to stimulate innovation – the area CEOs most want to strengthen to capitalise on new opportunities.


Technology also creates new jobs: jobs for people who can design, monitor, maintain and fix technology; jobs for people in sectors that benefit indirectly from technology; and new versions of ‘old-world’ jobs. Witness the rise of on-demand companies that match customers with contractors selling everything from taxi services to accommodation. Ultimately, though, it’s the ability to acquire new skills that’s kept people employed through past disruptions. And the intersection between man and machine can generate more value than either alone.


The challenge is getting to that point: 77% of CEOs worry that skills shortages could impair their company’s growth. And they say it’s the soft skills they value most that are hardest to find. Creative, innovative leaders with emotional intelligence are in very short supply. If anything, indeed, they’re even thinner on the ground than they were in 2008, when we asked a similar question, whereas people with technological skills are more plentiful than before.


So how are CEOs addressing the skills crunch? They’re promoting diversity; looking for the best people, irrespective of who or where they are; and moving employees where they’re needed. More than three-quarters of CEOs have also changed their talent strategies to reflect the skills and employment structures their firms will require in the future, whereas the number who say their company uses technology to hire, train and retain people is considerably smaller.


In fact, new strategies to find and train people won’t be enough. Organisations will have to collaborate with government, educational and vocational institutes and employees to redesign the entire system within which people work. They’ll have to appoint executive teams that reflect the diversity of the employee pool, create a purpose and culture that inspires people and help the workforce manage turbulence. Retaining the human element in an increasingly virtual world will be vital for future success.