The age of disruption

Dec 03, 2018
Why should you care about the future of work? In short, your employability depends on it.

There are huge similarities in the approaches being taken to both the future of work and climate change. It’s out there, we know it’s happening; but we are too busy in our daily work to give it sufficient time and thought, thereby limiting our capacity to adapt before it’s too late.

Most readers will be familiar with Stephen Covey’s time management quadrant. The future of work is in quadrant two: not urgent, but important. We tend to focus on the urgent to-do list and the reality of meeting deadlines. In this article, I will outline the importance of investing time in your future employability and explain why everyone should care about the future of work.

Why should you care?

The average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 organisation is just 15 years, so individuals can no longer assume that employment is for life. Business competitors no longer come from within your industry sector; they mostly sprout up and scale at speed to grab huge market share. Airbnb was not started by hoteliers, Uber was not founded within the taxi industry, Netflix was not started within the media industry. This speed of change will catch you unaware if you are busy with your head down.

Accountancy firms compete fiercely to hire entry level graduates. However, they will need fewer graduates in the future as an increasing variety of manual tasks become automated. As accountants, you learned your trade as juniors by conducting audits in industry. You got to see and understand how businesses operate in real life. How will graduates get this experience if and when the work is automated? Change is required in the education and integration of accounting graduates into the future world of work.
While Ireland is in the midst of an employment boom, we are witnessing the rise of corporate outplacement programmes as finance and accounting roles become automated. These roles, along with administration and middle management, featured consistently in the Harmonics Global Future of Work Study as the top three roles in decline.

The work you did in the past is changing rapidly. Almost every organisation is undertaking a lean transformation or robotic process automation project of routine manual-entry tasks to achieve greater scale, speed and cost efficiency. As an example, Revenue’s move to real-time data as part of its PAYE Modernisation programme eliminates the need for the P30, P45 and P60 forms, along with end-of-year returns. Digits on a spreadsheet are easily mapped into software applications, which takes the pain away and simplifies work. PwC recently launched a digital fitness app for employees worldwide to accelerate and upskill the digital knowledge of its people across a range of domains. Digital acumen is now a lifelong endeavour, which needs to be embraced to stay employable.

Big data is valuable and business intelligence dashboards offer real-time data on key business metrics. Artificially intelligent machines will provide answers, but our potential in the future of work is in the questions we ask. Think about a calculator – we’ve all used one to do a quick calculation. The next stage was Googling a simple question to get an instant answer. Now, imagine inputting a complex accounting scenario into a computer programme, and back come your options. In this scenario, massive computational power has replaced manual effort. Indeed, computing is increasing in power and reducing in price – in 2023, it is expected that €1,000 will buy you computational power equivalent to that of the human brain.

A recent World Economic Forum report estimated that total work tasks in 2018 were 70/30 in favour of humans over machines. This will evolve speedily to 60/40 by 2022. We are not far off equilibrium in terms of the ratio between human and machine tasks in the workplace, and this demands change on our part. Like our organisations, we too have new competitors for our work – smart machines – and we need to learn how to work with them, rather than compete with them, into the future. The smart machines I speak of are software bots that are learning 24/7 and replicating the work we currently do on our computers.

The organisational impact

The hierarchical organisation chart that once created vertical career ladders in a functional silo no longer makes sense. This is a major challenge for future organisation design. The organisation chart of the future is organic and constantly evolving. Work architecture needs to be broken up like Lego and reconfigured into human and machine pieces. Organisations are neither resourced nor ready for such an eventuality.

Like Lego, the work pieces will need be broken down and reconfigured for every new business challenge. This will lead to the demise of rigid functional silos and will require agile and cross-functional networked systems that evolve to meet specific customer needs.

What can you do now?

You can prepare by letting go of the past – something we, as humans, find very hard to do. We like routine, certainty and security. Accounting roles are transitioning away from day-to-day number crunching to focus more on interpreting data, building financial models aligned to company strategies/initiatives and project-based work with key stakeholders and other departments.

I speak about the nine critical human skills needed in my new book, Future Proof Your Career, which will be available soon on Amazon. The future of work will demand lifelong devotion to the development of critical human skills including critical thinking, communication, creativity, consulting, commercial acumen, collaboration and embracing new cultures – all of which will need to be complemented by ever-changing digital skills. It is not only a skillset shift that is required, but a mindset one. If you have a fixed mindset, resist change and are unwilling to upskill, then your job and your future employability is in jeopardy – but this is within your control. 

Finally, I invite you to take part in our global future career readiness research project. It is aimed at working professionals to honestly evaluate how future-ready you are. The Future Career Readiness Index is a powerful instrument that allows you to quickly test your future career readiness in five key areas. It takes less than 10 minutes to benchmark yourself against others in your sector and profession. On completion, you will receive a free downloadable Future Career Readiness report to accelerate your future career. You can access the report at www.futurecareerreadiness.com.

My parting career advice is this: disrupt yourself before you are disrupted.

John Fitzgerald is Managing Director at Harmonics Group and serves on the Board of OI Global Partners.