We’ve all seen technology transform the blue-collar employment landscape in recent years. But if you think your job is safe because you sit at a desk, think again, says Srinivas (“Srini”) Koushik, chief technology officer at Magellan Health. Digital advances and artificial intelligence are poised to disrupt the world of white-collar work as well.
Srini was a recent guest on my radio show, iLead: The Leadership Connection, during which he described how artificial intelligence and algorithms will take over many of the tasks performed by today’s white-collar workforce.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, he said.
“The best example I can use from recent memory is the smart phone. Think back to before 2007. Who knew what the heck a smart phone was, right? And eight years later, it’s an indispensable device.”
Srini reminded me how much time we all used to spend trying to find a pay phone to make a call. Now we can use that time to accomplish more important tasks. “Technology took over a lot of the things that we used to do, but it improved our ability to do more and better things,” he said. “People have become a lot more productive. They’ve figured out how to do more valuable things as technology became more and more efficient. I’m 100 percent confident that that’s what’s going to happen, but it’s not going to be without pain.”
What makes us uniquely human
The white-collar workforce has been trained to be problem-solvers, to use tools and techniques to arrive at solutions. “As computer power increases, I think machines and algorithms will be able to do that,” Srini said, “and do it with far fewer errors. But there are a lot of emerging areas that I believe will continue to need human skills.” One thing computers can’t yet duplicate: our capacity for right-brain thinking.
So while STEM training will still be important, we’ve reached the stage where we also need people to leverage that technology to improve the human condition. “And to do that we’re going to need liberal arts folks who are tech-savvy,” Srini said.
Google is famous for hiring this sort of person, often called the Smart Creative. “These are people who are not just good at one thing, but they’re also playful, they’re passionately involved in things, they keep themselves their toes,” Srini said. “More importantly, they attract more people like them.”
That’s the kind of white-collar worker whose job is not in danger, Srini told me. And that’s the kind of talent universities should be encouraging and organizations should be looking for.
As an example, Srini pointed out Khan Academy, the online learning website, which recently opened up an experimental school that uses an experiential-based approach. “I love the idea of not having teachers, but mentors,” Srini said. “Knowing where you need to go to get the information you want to find.”
He suggested the same model could be applied to the 21st-century workplace, using the popular 70-20-10 model of learning and development. “The concept is that 10 percent of your learning is going to come from reading books, articles, white papers,” Srini said. “Twenty percent of your learning is coming to come from just-in-time training. And 70 percent is going to come from on-the-job experiential learning.
“It’s the equivalent of ‘I don’t have to teach you the multiplication tables anymore, I just need to teach you how to use a calculator more effectively.’ ”
Disrupting the status quo
We have a corporate and educational infrastructure in the Western world that’s been successful for decades. It’s natural that such a system would resist change. But change it must, Srini said.
“The opportunity that developing countries have right now is to kind of leapfrog us,” he told me. “That’s something we have to watch out for. Because this is a global economy and that’s how we compete.”
Among the most vulnerable are the service industry, where tasks traditionally handled by call centers can be performed by computer-based algorithms like Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, and the banking and insurance industries, where trading and advising can now easily be done by machines.
Health care is one area in which Srini sees opportunities growing, rather than shrinking. “As medical technologies improve, the number of people getting diagnoses continues to go up, but the ability to provide care to them, through doctors, nurse practitioners, trained psychologists and others is not keeping up,” he said. “Technology is going to make the providers we have more effective for our patients.
“Say each doctor can cover 20 patients a day. If we start getting 40 patients a day, we’ve got to find another doctor. How do I make that provider more effective so that linear 1-to-20 ration is broken?”
The new organizational culture
It’s not only the workers who will have to adapt to the new technology-driven environment. So will leaders. Take Srini’s field of expertise — IT. Leaders of the past were rewarded for providing stability and certainty, but now “we’re moving into an environment where IT leaders have to be able to deal with change and ambiguity,” he said. “Technology is moving such a rapid pace that we don’t have the ability to slow it down and standardize it. Which means leaders have to start re-thinking what they do.
“Culture is absolutely where you have to start, and culture, at least in my mind, starts with the type of leadership you have. Just as Smart Creatives tend to attract other Smart Creatives, really old, bad hierarchical leaders tend to attract other old, bad hierarchical leaders.”
The new organizational culture must be open, engaged, and focused on helping people get better. “I know everyone says they celebrate failure in the Valley,” Srini said. “Well, they don’t celebrate failure. They celebrate the learning that comes from failure. I think it was Bill Gates who said that you learn a lot more from your mistakes than you do from your successes.”
And you don’t need to be a young person to think this way. Srini believes everyone can be a Smart Creative or an effective 21st-century leader, regardless of their age.
“It’s a question of the amount of time he or she is willing to put into it. Does the individual have the motivation and drive to be able to do this? Because you’re going to see different types of people. One will say ‘well, I’m retiring, and I don’t need this anymore.’ A second will say, ‘I’m going to fight this.’ And a third is going to say, ‘Well, this is coming, and there’s no point in fighting it because I want to be the person who’s driving that change.’
“No matter what age you are, what role you’re in, there’s an opportunity to go learn something today,” Srini said.