'Fear of Automation' is 'Fear of the Future' for Asia's Digital Economy

Hardly a week goes by without distressing news of automated machines displacing humans from the workforce. If questions such as “what will happen to my job when so much can now be automated?”, “How should my company be structured in an era of AI, bots, and algorithms?”, and “how will my kids thrive when computers can out-think, out-work, and out-manage them?” are bothering you – you’re not alone.

In a survey, we found that almost 70% of the Asia Pacific executives we spoke to do not feel that new technologies could protect them from being replaced by a bot. They are reluctant to leverage machines to augment their job efficiency, as they feel less than positive about what digital means for the future of their jobs. In addition, only 40% feel that the digital revolution will help them to work faster, be a better leader, and communicate more effectively. Automation is a disruptive force that is transforming every industry and raising far-reaching questions about the work that people can do and the future relationship between man and machine. This is a scary business!

Services sector jobs, which were largely immune during the final stages of globalization, are now at risk — thanks to advancements in robotics and high-end engineering. As a result, Asian leaders believe that they must acquire technical skills to stay competitive, as well as working harder and for longer hours, to beat the “bots.” I believe that this view reflects cultural sentiments. In many Asian organizations, the pervading belief is that if you are not spending at least 12 hours a day at work, you are not being productive. Their employees believe that spending more hours at work means that they are more visible and more valuable. Spending fewer hours at work, in contrast, is seen as lazy and underperforming.

Relax! Things will not be that bad

Fear is an inevitable consequence of anything new and unfamiliar. When the “information highway” opened back in the early 1990s, it caused a wave of fear over the erosion of data privacy and control, not to mention the issues of intrusion and hacking. In spite of all the concerns about companies tracking people’s information online, few swore off the Internet entirely. In fact, quite the opposite has been true: smartphones and social media have become permanent fixtures in many of our lives. While every new technology introduces new risks, they rarely halt the unstoppable waterfall of game-changing innovations. Once a new technology has been assimilated, we stop drawing attention to its perceived downside. However, we have yet to reach this stage with advanced automation.

So, how to beat the bots? Well, you don’t need to. In fact, the future consists of working in tandem with machines to succeed. Machines may help improve productivity, but they cannot come up with the ideas that move businesses forward. What they can do is add efficiency to many of the activities performed by individuals. Leaders must consider the following suggestions to get ahead of the game in terms of what it means to be truly digital.

Unlearn 65% of the past

The future of your career will not be determined by your last job title, but instead will be based on the new skills you can develop for the path ahead of you. However, only 35% of Asia Pacific executives — compared with the global average of 60% — feel they need to be more focused on learning skills.

Changing business models often translate to skill set imbalances. With this in mind, robots and machine learning are likely to challenge workers to focus on new skills and adjust to rapid changes in core job skillsets. This trend requires organizations to acquire and nurture the skills that are not only required today, but also fit tomorrow’s needs.

Double down on human-centric skills

One of the biggest impacts of the ever-increasing pace of digitalization is the sweeping changes that will be made to jobs and the skills required to do them. Rote tasks, which still represent a substantial proportion of most people’s day-to-day work, will be hoovered up by machines, freeing up our time and energy to ask deeper questions, carve out more promising pathways, and generate more impactful innovations. What all of this means is that the future of our work will be more strategic.

Analytical and global operating skills are already vital for business success, but in the coming years, these traits will become even more central to maintaining organizational relevance for the work ahead. As Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt rightly notes, “the biggest issue is simply the development of analytical skills. Most of the routine things people do will be done by computer, but people will manage the computers around them, and the analytical skills will never go out of style.”

Human skills that require constructive thinking (such as teaching, creating art, performing R&D, and comforting patients) will continue to be in demand in the future. Innovation, leadership and strategic thinking will also be critical, and could never (at least for the next several years) be replaced with robot technology. Unusually, Asia Pacific executives ascribe relatively less importance to these skills. This is a red flag, as it demonstrates that many Asian employees and businesses have not yet fully thought through how to take advantage of the opportunities — and mitigate the risks — produced by the new wave of technologies.

Practice ‘collaboration,’ as you can’t win the digital game alone

Asian leaders are less than half as likely as their global peers to believe that digitalization will help them to collaborate more effectively (and gain a career advantage). Collaboration — the key mantra of work in the digital era — is at odds with the hyper-competitive nature of businesses during times when Asia Pacific economies are expected to deliver slower growth than in the past.

Digital is inherently collaborative and is about equalizing power structures through the democratization of information. Whether management likes it or not, leaders who recognize that collaboration is the key to business success will increasingly be in demand in the digital workplace. In addition, while many leaders believe that they can achieve collaboration by simply installing collaboration software, that is far from the case. Collaboration is not about platforms or technology; it is, at heart, about engaging people in a shared journey that can transform a business from the bottom up and break down internal barriers.

Business leaders have to lead by example; for instance, they should spend at least 20% of their time ensuring that there is an atmosphere of collaboration at work — in other words, one full day of their “regular job” per week. Yes, that’s right: with the magnitude of the ongoing changes, this is the minimum investment your organization must make. Fostering collaboration is a work skill that will be in great demand in the near future, and your organization must be ready.

It’s time to dismiss fear of automation as needless paranoia. In fact, the fear around digitalization signals a tremendous opportunity for Asia-Pacific business leaders to innovate and change perceptions of technology. Leaders who fail to leverage the new phenomenon out of fear will encourage counterproductive thinking and decisions that are detrimental to their business.

Robots aren’t coming – they are already here!

Image credit: Ron Codd