"What if....." Is technology de-skilling our workforce?

07 Nov 2019

How many ‘Apps’ do you interact with on a daily basis? 5, 10, 15 or more. Recently I was helping a CEO prepare for an industry presentation about the platformisation of business and a quick straw poll survey of his team revealed an average of 14 interactions per day. The fact of the matter is that the volume and frequency of interaction with technology is on the increase. So what’s wrong with this you may ask? The intent of this article is not to prove any wrong doing, merely a precaution as to the potential limitation of our ability to survive in the modern world due to our reliance on technology. To begin I must share a personal experience that started my concern.

The year was 1998 and I was flying to Philadelphia on business with a well known British airline. A great friend of mine was a captain for this airline and he arranged for me to sit in the flight deck on the jump seat to experience the flight with front row viewing. Of course, this was a few years before the dreadful events of September 11th which has resulted in this experience being removed as an option for understandable safety reasons. As a 20 something enthusiastic flyer I remember being extremely excited to witness take off on the Boeing 777. I was invited to the flight deck where I was introduced to the crew and then had some of the vast amount of instruments explained to me and I took my seat and strapped in ready for take off. I listened to the conversations between the pilot and air traffic control as we taxied towards the runway. I witnessed the duo perform their respective roles with perfection as the pull of the acceleration down the runway brought a huge smile to my face and we left the ground bound for the USA. Then came the alarming situation that shocked me as it does today. No sooner had the wheels left the ground, or so it seemed anyway, then the captain turned to me and said, "Right, who fancies a cup of tea"?

As this was first for me, I was extremely worried about his hands not being near, let alone on the controls and concerned over his lack of sight on the direction of travel. I began to panic for a moment until the captain explained and put my mind at rest.
What he explained was that the plane can fly itself including take off and landing, although that task is almost always performed by human performance. He explained that the team were there 'just in case'.
It never dawned on me that the computer was so powerful that it could perform such a series of complicated tasks, yet when you really think about it computers and all associated ‘Tech’ stuff can do almost anything these days. So, what’s the point of this rambling?
My flight experience was one great example of where technology enables safety and efficiency and I know the pilots train extensively to deal with all eventualities.
But can we say the same for other job tasks?
Sat Nav or GPS has added convenience and minimised travel disruption navigating us through road works, congestion and finding the easiest and often quickest way to get from A to B. However, has it disabled our map reading skills? You ask 10 people today on your travels if they can read a map, I wonder how many will be able to say yes, especially those younger individuals. Our quest for increased efficiency, or to be more precise, to fit more things into our busy lives, convenience is reducing our ability to perform the ‘just in case’. For example how many telephone numbers do you know if you were asked without looking them up on your smart device?

How many of the tasks you do in your job today could you do if technology failed?
Simple example of losing your mobile phone? What could you do? How would this impact your performance? You may know your own, but how many others? Are we too reliant on technology to perform basic tasks? What if your phone died during your day and you didn’t have any means of re-charging?
Sorry to bring this horrifying situation to your mind, but it is worth thinking about if we are to survive the world we are creating. 
This is more concerning when you consider over 50% of the global workforce within the next 3 months will be comprised of Millennials (and younger).
In the work you do how much do you rely on technology and do you have the necessary skill set yourself and in your organisation to cope ‘just in case’ technology lets you down?

We know technology is bringing us closer geographically, but it is evidently decreasing our understanding when it comes to communication. How often do we use an email or text instead of a face to face conversation and what impact does this have on our working relationships?

Automation is advancing productivity in many areas of commerce as well as health care and education, but what if the system fails, could we take up where the machine left off and carry on?

Now I don’t want to appear as though I am a technophobe as I am a fan of what technology can do and I’m excited to see what it will do in our future, but I am concerned about the ‘just in case’ scenarios and the fail rate if we are unable to keep calm and carry on, as they say.

I encourage you to review your system and procedures in the way you work and look at the fail safe options, just in case the technology lets you down. Technology and automation including the marvel of A.I. are shaping our future and providing opportunities we can only dream of, because everything was once a dream. It is often said that you need technology to future proof your business, but I would argue that to be better future proof we need to up skill or even re-skill our human colleagues so they are equipped to handle all eventualities.

One of the interventions where we have assisted our valued client base is to run a session with the team entitled “What if” and consider all the eventualities that could happen in the business area that are currently performed by technology. You may wish to try this yourself. Then create a skills matrix dividing it in to two main columns... Human Potential and Human Impossible. Finally devise a series of training interventions to cover those in the ‘Human Potential’ column and devise emergency operating procedures for all the others.

We all agree that technology is great, when it works!