Magazine Contact #21 - Magazine - About us - Concept Wiesner-Hager
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Automation of the office world: Are we running out of work?

Magazine Contact #21

Digital transformation is changing everything, also the work of the future. One of the most interesting visionaries on this topic is Prof Helmut Karner, company consultant and cofounder of the Föhrenbergkreis. Wiesner-Hager discussed future work trends with him in 2001. For the current contact we met with him to reflect on the developments over the past 15 years, to sound out his predictions and take a new glimpse into the crystal ball.

Around the millennium the change from the old to the new economy began in the direction of digitising the working world. In the first ten years this development proceeded somewhat slowly, however since 2010 it has been rapidly gaining speed. The internet and mobile technology (such as smartphones, tablets, WLAN, etc.) impact the digital transformation of organisation processes like a turbojet. This is causing the automation of the office world to be enormously accelerated: While productivity and income have been developing at an equal rate for quite some timework productivity has risen twice as rapidly, since the noughties, as a result of the increasing automation (Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis). What we have experienced in the past few decades in production is also a reality in knowledge work. 

Automation of knowledge work means that in the era of big data intelligent IT systems are increasingly better able to make decisions, which presupposes analytical abilities, than man himself – reliably and in real time, as well. “Amazon, Google and others are not so successful because they supply customers with information but because, based on search query analysis, they already know what customers want before they do and offer it systematically,” emphasised Prof Helmut Karner. Automation can also be understood as a threat in the sense of classic office work: Typical administrative duties will in future be handled by intelligent systems. Many jobs will be obsolete. We are not running out of work however: Man will in future find his place increasingly in conceptual fields conducive to creativity, and which entail teamwork, emotions and empathy. With these abilities man is still superior to the machine. 

In conversation with Prof Helmut Karner: 

The digital transformation in the working world is gaining speed. What do you think about the developments over the past 15 years?

Karner: In 2001 it was already clear that the factors of production of capital, work, land or raw materials were being replaced by knowledge. Not knowledge in terms of information - information alone is no competitive advantage. It is the targeted transformation of information into knowledge that makes a company successful. Knowledge work currently comprises 60 to 70 percent of the jobs in Austria. What is new is that automation is now also gaining ground in these areas of the working world. This development has once again particularly accelerated during the past five years. 

When one thinks about automation, immediately images arise of industrial machines, mass production, etc. How can automation be understood with respect to knowledge work?

Karner: Thomas Davenport (Note: American author and analytics specialist) speaking in this context said that we have reached the age of Analytics 3.0. Analytics 1.0 describes the classic database system from the 1970s. The data came from internal company sources and was restricted to descriptive analyses. The advent of big data in the noughties was also the start of Analytics 2.0, which was determined by massive volumes of data.

Many employees were involved in analysing and assessing the data and drawing conclusions to generate knowledge from the information. In Analytics 3.0 this “on the fly” task is handled by systems. That enables lightning fast insight into company processes and automated decisions based on them. 

Are there examples of where Analytics 3.0 is currently already being used?

Karner: There certainly are. “Intelligent Alert” from Amazon is the perfect example: Every search query is examined for 40 criteria. Derived from these are your areas of interest, e.g. your future demand. That makes itself noticeable on the next visit to Amazon – the system independently suggests products for you to buy, which it assumes are of interest to you. Another example is the customer and loyalty cards of major retail chains, which are organised according to a similar principle. 

Then will there be no more work for us “office people” in the future? 

Karner: In the Chinese metropolises or in Singapore, where the amount of knowledge work is 80 percent, it is now already the case that the jobs, which were performed by administrators in the past, are now increasingly assumed by software tools. That of course does not mean that we are running out of work but it quite foreseeable that the focuses of the work will shift in the future. 

Where will the focuses of the work then shift?

Karner: In a few areas man is still far superior to the machine, above all with respect to creativity: Man will always find a place in the conceptual arena, with respect to new ideas or innovations. Teamwork is more important than ever. More heads with different competencies and problem solving tactics bring new perspectives into play. Emotional, e.g. typically human competencies, such as empathy and motivational ability will in future play a pivotal role. However also skill is and will remain a key factor. 

And what impacts does that have on the offices of the future?

Karner: Offices of the future reflect these new work priorities. Flexibilisation is the order of the day. The possibility of compiling teams as quickly as possible – also spatially – is decisive for a company’s success. Google – as the spearhead of innovative offices – relies on “casual collision” areas, for example, in the new US headquarters. These are lounges or working cafés, which were designed with the aim of having scientists from different branches meet and exchange with one another, which increases the level of knowledge of both parties. The office of the future can be imagined like a “corporate campus”, an amalgamation of life, and work, private and public sphere. 

Prof Helmut F. Karner was active internationally for 35 years in executive management (including as General Director of Olivetti, Dean and Managing Director of the global Olivetti Company University, European General Manager of Northern Telecom). Today he works as an international management consultant for companies and institutions. In addition, he does numerous teaching assignments at business schools domestic and abroad and acts as a guiding spirit of the Austrian think tank, Föhrenbergkreis (http://fbkfinanzwirtschaft.wordpress.com/).

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