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Automation Angst: Can You Feel It Now?

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angst äNG(k)st/

noun: a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.


What does automation angst look like in 2018? It might look different for everyone.  
There's no shortage of reports on the expected impact of automation on our lives in the next couple of decades. The number of displaced workers could run as high as 800 million by 2030 with some 73 million in the U.S. alone. On the flip side, we hear that many more jobs will be created than will be lost due to AI and smart robotics.
Contributing to the general sense of angst is that no one knows for certain how innovative breakthroughs and transformative technologies will play out for society, industries, and institutions in the next decade (let alone the next 20 or 30 years). 
Consider these four situations. Do any of them resonate for you?
  • Over the age of 50 and worried that you're too old (or feeling too tired) to learn one more “piece” of new technology.
  • Recently changed careers to avoid (or at least slow down) the automation of your current job and now lack the finances to invest in learning new skills.
  • Skeptical of the AI and smart machines hype and plan to take a “wait and see” approach.
  • Overwhelmed by the hype and know that you need to do something, but have no idea where to begin.
Of course, you might be someone who welcomes a robot replacing a job that you hate today, but have you really given thought to how you would feel if your entire skillset were absorbed and managed by a robot? What would your Plan B look like for such a tectonic shift? 
Big challenges are the ones that juice our brains and prepare us for taking action, which is why I attended MIT's EmTech Next conference in June.  
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MIT Associate Professor Iyad Rahwan presented interesting ideas about mapping workplace skills to better understand the potential impact of automation on jobs and career mobility.   

Skillscape: A Framework

Assumption: Jobs that pay the most require the most skills. 
What would eventually serve as the framework for the Skillscape model, the research team created a network of complementary skills by mapping all 700 job and 200 skill categories classified by the U.S. Department of Labor. 
The Skillscape: On the right side are the physical skills, sensory skills, and pyschomotor skills that are complementary to one another and on the left are social skills, analytical skills, and managerial skills. The bridge in between are skills that we're all expected to have, such as basic literacy and basic communication skills. 
Looking at what it would take to help people move from the low-paying cluster of socio-physical skills to the high-paying cluster of socio-cognitive skills, given that it's the low-paid cluster of skills that robots are learning to do, Skillscape results indicate that helping people transition across this divide won't be easy. 
Not only are more skills required as we move clusters, but the speed of how we acquire the right skills  can make all the difference.  

Education Matters 

It turns out that education is definitely a missing piece to this puzzle. But unlike on-the-job training that has worked reasonably well for a generation of workers, future labor force training will require greater investment of time and money, if we hope to lift people and transition them quickly to the other side of a cluster vs. gradual learning on the job. 
Workers will need help in making these transitions. 
Rahwan suggests that it could take 1-2 years for individuals to make the transformational shifts required in transitioning from a socio-physical cluster to a socio-cognitive cluster. 
Be sure to check out their very cool skill network tool where you can unpack various skills, jobs, and do side-by-side city comparisons.  

Becoming Less Automatable

Throughout the 2-day conference, I repeatedly heard that employers and career professionals should prepare for full-scale automation and smart machines in the coming decades by becoming less automatable. Where do I see the opportunities for doing so?

As a business leader what can you do to prepare for this tectonic technological shift? 

Begin by addressing the angst within your organization. It’s there. It’s lying below the surface. No matter how busy people are checking the boxes for what gets done today, they’re thinking about the future. You want your workforce to imagine the future with you and not some other company that happens to offer a robust educational and training strategy for the tectonic shifts coming down the pike.
Prepare your workforce for managing situations that require complex social skills:  
  • Convincing others that changing now is the better solution than the status quo 
  • Leading collaborative, problem-solving discussions on complex topics
  • Navigating and adapting to fast-moving changes within the organization
  • Acclimating to the unknown where outcomes are not guaranteed and navigation occurs without a compass
  • Resilience when plans go awry and a change in direction is required
  • Trusting your markers and intuiting when a change in direction is needed 
  • Decision-making without perfection, implementing with what you have on hand (50% or less), pivoting, adjusting and tweaking along the way
As a career professional what can you do to prepare for this tectonic technological shift? 
Learn to manage the complex social skills listed above. 
Apply the skills as you learn them, don't wait until you have an entirely new set of skills before putting them into action. Manage complex teams. You know the kind. Projects that keep you up at night, but ones that also stretch your abilities and (grandly) point out skill gaps—quickly--so that you're not wasting time figuring out what muscle(s) needs to be worked.