Guest Column

The future of work – golden opportunity or potential disaster?

2019-02-19 13:30

The implications of a changing future world of work lie beyond the insomnia of business people. The accelerated automation of work threatens employment and the social contract underpinning society, writes Deidre Samson.

The big, bad, much-touted Fourth Industrial Revolution is truly with us. Driverless cars, delivery drones and robots, and digital assistants making dinner reservations are all a reality and no longer science fiction.

The writing is on the wall. Despite the best efforts of Donald Trump, the world continues to globalise and China continues to rise as a power. Changing demographics herald a new world with different values, consumers and marketplaces.

What has not changed significantly, however, is the way work is structured. We still have rigid hierarchies and layers of management while the employee participation movement of the 1970s has failed to deliver on its promise.

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Gary Hamel, a global strategist, considers management to be the greatest invention of the 20th century, but he concedes that it has not evolved in line with the promise of inclusiveness, transparency and connection created by the internet.

If we accept the architects' maxim that "form follows function", new digitally disrupted and enabled organisations require new sources of "form". This means we need to rethink work, who performs it and how it is structured.

A trend that cannot be ignored is the ever-increasing use of consultants, outsourced partners and contingent employees, the so-called "Road Warriors" or "Digital Nomads" of the modern era. These people constitute a significant portion of the value-add of a business. Yet, they are not reflected on organisational charts, with HR turning a blind eye to the crucial role they play.

The reality is that in today's hyper-competitive world, organisations need to be agile, drive down costs and access the best possible talent, irrespective of whether employed, contingent, outsourced or part of the emerging gig economy. This requires a structural backbone, enabled by technology, which differentiates the important jobs to be done and integrates them in a seamless, aligned manner.

Businesses that innovatively rethink organisational design in a digitally enabled world are those who will enjoy a sustainable form of competitive advantage going forward. But, where are the innovative thinkers who will design the new "fit for purpose" organisations? This is a question that should keep us awake at night.

The implications of a changing future world of work lie beyond the insomnia of business people. The accelerated automation of work, physical and cognitive, threatens employment and the social contract underpinning society.

South Africa, with its fragile society and high rates of unemployment, is at risk. Accenture believes this country needs to double the speed at which workforces acquire relevant skills for this new era of work.

Achieving this could reduce the jobs at risk from 20% (3.5 million jobs) to just 14% (2.5 million jobs). Being able to build these skills faster than other countries introduces the possibility of South Africa gaining significant competitive advantage and growing employment by remotely importing work and jobs (Creating South Africa's Future Workforce 2018, Accenture Consulting).

With our current education system this is a tall order – the magnitude of which should make it a national priority.

Yet, all is not gloom and doom. There are indications that South Africa could benefit greatly from the increased consumption benefits of its youthful population, or what the economists call our demographic dividend.

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The ageing populations of Europe and Japan pose huge economic threats to these economies. With too many old people who rely on welfare benefits and too few young consumers who pay tax, growth becomes a pipedream.

The youthful makeup of South Africa's population is a glimmer of hope that cannot be ignored. But it is a two-edged sword: If we are not able to create sufficient gainful employment, we face the prospect of social unrest led by youth with no vested stake in a system that does not benefit them.

Will our youth be equipped for employment in the new digitally enabled world? This is our $64 million question.

- Deidre Samson is a futures consultant and new knowledge market executive at the Institute for Futures Research (IFR), a unit for strategic foresight at Stellenbosch University.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    unemployment  |  fourth industrial revolution


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