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The Future of Work: Automation and Continuous Change?

By Prof Ken Eason

Predictions for the future of Work

Christmas saw the publication of another forecast of the number of jobs that are at risk because of the march of robotics and artificial intelligence. This time it was the IPPR (Institute of Public Policy Research) forecasting that up to 44% of UK jobs are at risk across wide sectors of the economy.

IPPR Report on Managing Automation

There are now many forecasts of massive job losses and attention is being focused on a world where a small proportion of people (the highly skilled ones) will be employed and the rest will be out of work and poor.

But there is also another common theme in the debate about the future of work. It is that we exist in a complex, ever changing, interconnected, global economy and that to survive organisations have to be flexible, resilient and adaptive. The cry is that:

The Only Constant is Change

 Who will manage the change?

How do we reconcile these two different perspectives on the future of work?  Our clever technology may be very good at doing the operational work but it cannot help us make sense of the messy world of international trade, market forces, competitiveness, social change, government action and technical innovation. And it cannot determine what we should do to take advantage of new opportunities and defend against threats. AI may be smart but it is a narrow intelligence with a clever understanding of a specific work domain. Indeed, such narrow AI is also known as weak AI because it cannot replace the breadth of capabilities of a human. However imperfect they may be, human beings are currently the only general purpose intelligent resource we have that can make sense of a confusing, changing world – sentience is known as strong AI.

How is a work organisation to manage in a changing world with a small labour force and a large and sophisticated technological base that may be difficult and expensive to change? The small labour force may have a big agenda: to manage the technology and make sure nothing goes wrong, to monitor the outside world and spot opportunities and threats and to design and implement new ways of working to meet changing requirements. And to keep doing all of these things all of the time. There are many reasons to predict that this model of future work organisations will be ineffective and could be dangerous. One of the reasons for this prediction is what we know about how work actually gets done.

People as the adaptive, coping agents in work systems

 Every study of how work actually gets done shows that it is rarely done strictly according to the formal processes specified that may be embedded in the technology. The people in the work system embellish the formal processes with their own knowledge, often tacit and undeclared, in order to give work delivery the flexibility to meet varied and emergent requirements. They are the ‘oil in the system’ that ‘keeps the show on the road’. They recognize what is new and different, learn how to adapt, and add new, often unspecified, procedures to the repertoire of the organisation. In doing so they often have to ‘work around’ inflexibilities in the formal system to get work done and meet customer requirements.

As a result in any well-established work system there are people who have a deep but often implicit understanding of how the system actually works and a learning capability that means there is a bottom-up process of adaptation and evolution in place that responds to local changes.

The danger of the current narrative about robotics and artificial intelligence is that it implies the replacement of this human resource with technologies that will produce the work on their own. If that is the case not only will work systems become less resilient and adaptive but all the collective tacit knowledge will be lost. And as the saying goes ‘you don’t know what you have lost ‘til it has gone’.

There is always ‘Organisational Choice’:  changing the balance of task 1 and task 2

 To their credit, the IPPR recognize that it is only some of the tasks that can be automated and there are many other parts of jobs that are best done by people. So instead of just assuming technology will replace people we have to ask how the new technological capabilities and the very different capabilities of human resources can be harnessed together for the long-term resilience and adaptability of work organisations. The solution has to be sociotechnical change not just technical change. There will be significant organisational choices to be made to find the right solutions and we need some principles to guide this process. Here are a few to consider:

  1. Immediate cost-effectiveness may be a dangerous objective. The key argument for automation may be economic – you get greater and more reliable productivity from robots and they are cheaper than human resources. That may be so, but you also have to consider what you might lose….
  2. Knowledgeable and skillful human resources provide a sense making resource that can cope with the unforeseen. We need to keep a general sense making capability at all levels within the organisation; to keep a watchful eye on our technology and to provide flexibility and adaptability wherever it is needed. But to be effective people need to keep their knowledge and skills up-to-date and that means actually doing the operational tasks some of the time. So, enabling them to ‘keep their hand in’ is an important design criteria for future systems design.
  3. Having people who understand the task domain means there is a double-task resource to add significant knowledge to planning future developments. Task 1– getting today’s work done – has dominated.

People also have Task 2 abilities – to step back and reflect, to review their performance, to see what can be improved etc. The more they can do this, the better chance the organisation has of coping with the need for continuous change.

Helping people and organisations develop their Task 2 capabilities is an important part of the Bayswater Institute mission. It could be that one of the consequences of robotics and AI will be that people need to spend less time on Task 1 and they can spend more time on Task 2 – in particular thinking about how the work system may be changed to meet new challenges and opportunities. Exploring the potential impacts up-front would seem a good investment in that this is a global challenge and will generate new requirements of the work force that could benefit from planning rather than reacting.

1966 and All That: Trends and Developments 1956-1974 within UK Ergonomics

Development of ergonomics in the UK between 1956 and 1974

Abstract:
The 1960s represents a key decade in the expansion of ergonomics within the UK. This paper reviews trends and developments that emerged out of the 1960s and compares these with ergonomics research and practice today. The focus in particular is on the expansion of ergonomics as a discipline within industry, as well as more specific topics, such as the emergence of areas of interest, for example, computers and technology, automation and systems ergonomics and consumer ergonomics. The account is illustrated with a detailed timeline of developments, a set of industrial case studies and the contents of important publications during the decade. A key aim of the paper is to provide the opportunity to reflect on the past and the implications this may have for future directions for ergonomics within the UK.

The paper provides practitioners with an insight into the development of ergonomics in the UK during one of the most important decades of its history. This is especially relevant given the fact that in 2009 the Ergonomics Society celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Introduction:

The quote from the Italian writer Italo Calvino was made during a debate held on ‘industry and literature’ at the beginning of the 1960s. Calvino sums up what were to become dominant themes in later accounts of the period, namely, the growth of automation and the increasing role played by technology within society. Both of these themes are important within ergonomics and continue today as sources of debate in research and practical applications of the subject. Similarly, many issues have declined in interest or relevance as compared to 40 years ago. Much has been written about the origins of ergonomics, alongside other discussions centred around pioneers within ergonomics and the future of the discipline (e.g. Frederic Bartlett). By comparison, little detailed information is available covering specific periods within the development of ergonomics. This paper focuses on the 1960s within UK ergonomics for a number of reasons. First, the 1960s can be seen as a mid-point between the immediate post-war roots and birth of ergonomics and its subsequent development into a fully fledged discipline. Second, during the 1960s, ergonomics became firmly established within industry and made firm steps towards closer engagement with civil, government and industrial users and practitioners. The late Brian Shackel (1927–2007), in a paper written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of ergonomics within EMI, viewed the period as a bridge between earlier work on military ergonomics and a later focus on consumer ergonomics in the 1970s.

In 2009 the UK Ergonomics Society celebrates its 60th anniversary. It seems timely and appropriate to stand back and review trends and developments over the period and compare these with present day ergonomics.

Taylor and Francis Ergonomics Ken Eason developments 1956 1974 within uk ergonomics

Taylor and Francis Publication Link

WATERSON P. AND EASON K.D. 1966 and All That: Trends and Developments 1956-1974 within UK Ergonomics. Ergonomics 52(11) 1323-1341

Afterword: The Past, Present and Future of Sociotechnical Systems Theory

Introduction:

Afterword: The Past, Present and Future of Sociotechnical Systems Theory Ken EasonIt is a rare privilege to have been the inspiration behind the production of this collection of papers and I warmly thank all of the contributors, especially Patrick Waterson, for reminding me of so many debates and giving me so much to reflect upon. I was especially pleased to find such a strong theme running through these papers, a theme that has been an obsession for me for over 40 years: sociotechnical systems theory. Throughout my career I have been concerned with systems approaches in ergonomics because they enable us to recognize that people at work often engage in tasks as part of a complex system and this has profound effects on them and their task performance. Of all the systems approaches that are available I have found sociotechnical systems theory the most powerful way of explaining systems behaviour and the most useful in designing new systems. My aim in these pages is to use the insights that the authors in this volume have provided to reflect on what has been important to me about sociotechnical systems theory, on where this approach is in the present day and what contribution it might make in the future.

Sociotechnical systems studies 1970-1990

I was very fortunate in the 1970s to work with Lisl Klein and Harold Bridger who were at that time stalwarts of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London, widely acknowledged to have been responsible for the development of sociotechnical sys- tems theory. The theory was developed to explain the human and organisational ramifications of the introduction of mechanization into coal mining, weaving and other industries. By the 1970s it was computer technology in all its forms that was beginning to have a major impact on work systems and when we started the HUSAT (Human Sciences and Advanced Technology) Research Group at Loughborough University, so graphically described by Tom Stewart and Leela Damodaran (Waterson, Stewart and Dam- odaran, this volume), it was natural for me to apply sociotechnical systems concepts in order to understand the impact of this new technology on people at work. At that time the main issue was that this technology was being used via ‘remote terminals’ linked to mainframe computers by ‘naïve users’, i.e. people who were not computer professionals, and these new users had to adapt to the unfriendly, rigid and literal ways in which computers operated. This started a major programme of work to render these devices easy to use for their new users leading to the ‘user friendly’ graph- ical interfaces used by most of the population today. My preoccu- pation, however, was that within each organisation there were different kinds of users whose work roles and tasks require specific service from the computer system. As a consequence we were soon writing papers about the needs of different kinds of computer user and my contribution to an early issue of this journal was a paper on ‘the manager as a computer user’. Sociotechnical systems theory, because of its emphasis upon the way technical and human resources are deployed to serve the needs of a collective task, was particularly well suited to examining how effectively the task needs of each user were served by computer systems and in most cases we found they were very badly served with the result that many systems were either rejected or ‘worked around’.

Science Direct Link

Ken Eason, Afterword: The past, present and future of sociotechnical systems theory, In Applied Ergonomics, Volume 45, Issue 2, Part A, 2014, Pages 213-220, ISSN 0003-6870, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apergo.2013.09.017.