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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.

Putting Social Science to Work

Social Science Theory and Use Case Studies Organisations Britain Germany

Book: Putting Social Science to Work

The Ground between Theory and Use Explored through Case Studies in Organisations

In this book, Lisl Klein and Ken Eason look at the various issues involved when attempts are made to make use of the theories, methods and findings of the social sciences in practical affairs. They consider how human and social considerations may be successfully integrated with technical and economic ones in the design and development of organisations at work.

Their study is both empirical and theoretical. Its core is the examination of fourteen case studies from manufacturing and service organisations in Britain and Germany. The various projects were carried out by units within the organisations themselves, by university departments, commercial consultants and an independent research institute. Outside the field of organisations the the authors consider the background and strategies of a number of individual practitioners, and also an attempt at national level (in Germany) to make systematic use of research. Their study is informed by their own extensive experience as researchers and practitioners of social science.

The book concludes with a discussion of what contributes to successful practice. Its findings will be invaluable to all social scientists interested in the application of their disciplines as well as to potential clients in the world of business and industry.

Published in 1991 the book remains relevant to contemporary issues of social science utilisation in organisations. It recognises the challenges of the social science practitioner in engaging with varied and complex dynamics within organisations. Further, that the goal of behaviour change is not well served by “packaged” approaches but must begin with the current situation in action. The case studies resonate with current attempts to introduce technology into the workplace and the recognition that the social context of behaviour change plays a key role.

KLEIN, L. & EASON, K.D. (1991) Putting Social Science to Work. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Representing Socio-Technical Systems Options in the Development of New Forms of Work Organization

Abstract:

It is widely accepted that effective implementation of new technology into work organizations needs an integrative approach in which developments in both technical and social systems are considered. Furthermore, success depends upon the effective participation of significant stakeholders in this process. This article reviews the methods available for this purpose and concludes that a particular weakness is the methods that can be used to generate and review socio-technical system opportunities early in the development process. Whilst methods exist to support stakeholder participation at this stage, they need to represent future socio-technical opportunities if they are to make an effective contribution. This article presents the ORDIT (Organizational Requirements Definition for Information Technology Systems) methodology, which uses responsibility modelling as a basis for constructing socio-technical systems opportunities. The application of telemedicine in health care is presented as a case study to demonstrate how this method can be used to construct and evaluate socio-technical scenarios.

Socio-technical Systems Work Organisational Development Information Technology

Publication at Taylor and Francis Online

Eason K.D. Harker S.D.P. and Olphert C.W. (1996) Representing Socio-Technical Systems Options in the Development of New Forms of Work Organization. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology 5(3) 399-420

DOI Link

Socio-Technical Theory and Work Systems in the Information Age

Book chapter entitled ‘Socio-technical theory and work systems in the information age’

This chapter of the book set the traditional focus of socio-technical systems theory on primary work systems in modern context where information and communication technology (ICT) has a major influence in the way work is undertaken. The chapter begins with a summary of the original work of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and critically reviews the major concepts to emerge from these studies. This is followed by a review of recent studies of the impact of ICT on work systems and how socio-technical systems are used to interpret these findings. Finally, concepts and methods of designing and implementing customisable and generic ICT systems in organisations. The authors call for a recognition and evaluation of socio-techcial systems as never completed but evolving over time; placing an emphasis on the emergent behaviour resulting from the use of new technical systems.

“Technology presumes there’s just one right way to do things and there never is.”

– Robert M. Pirsig

Socio-technical theory design networking systems

Google Books Link

EASON K. AND ABDELNOUR-NOCERA J. Socio-technical theory and work systems in the information age. In Whitworth B. and de Moor A. (eds) ‘Handbook of research on socio-technical design and social networking systems’ Information Science Reference, Hershey New York 65-77

People and Computers: Emerging Work Practice in the Information Age

A chapter in the book ‘Psychology at Work’ reviewing the impact of information technology on work practice and the link between people and work

 

Psychology at work Ken Eason People and computers emerging work practice in the information age

Amazon Book Link

EASON K.D. People and Computers: Emerging Work Practice in the Information Age. In P.B.Warr (ed) ‘Psychology at Work’ Penguin, London, 5th Edition pp 77-99 ISBN 0-14-100010-4

Surfing the Third Wave: Experiential Reflections on New Working Practices

Abstract:
This paper deals with issues and presents changes in practices relating to the new working as realized in the developing e-working world. The paper begins by reviewing my own experience. This is expressed as anecdote from my diary. Following this, the down- side of e-work is argued to be characterized by atomization and fragmentation and is depicted under four headings: being an e-worker, engaging with work as an e-worker, contextualizing experience as an e-worker, and managing self and work as an e-worker. This section is followed by a brief review of how this downside has been achieved. The paper then goes on to discuss two models for developing the e-work process be- yond the current debacle. The first model is one based on conventional practices and is concentrated on relieving the pressure. This conventional approach is also referred to as the “provision for . . .” model. The model deals with providing technologies and inducements and meeting expenses of e-workers as fragmented elements of the work- force. It is a patchwork quilt of piecemeal planning. The second model, arising from the research behind the paper, involves thinking again—Where might we be? The process develops an “invitation to join . . .” model, focusing on relationships. The paper goes on to describe a process for developing a systemic approach to e-work and non-e-work for large organizations and a means for applying the systemic development of e-work in full, and not just gesture. The paper concludes with an overview of the key learning points emergent from the research to date. Concerning the style of the paper, it is set out in the form of a Kolb learning cycle—this is the overarching methodology applied to the enquiry as a whole.

Open University Link

Bell, S. 2002. Surfing the Third Wave: Experiential Reflections on New Working Practices. Systemic Practice and Action Research. 15, 1, pp. 67 – 82