Digital labor generally refers to routine work performed by robotic process. New technology, like robots, have had a disruptive effect on human resources for decades. What does it mean for talent development professionals? As always, the past informs the future.
Manual check processing required legions of workers in the 1950s. Bank of America collaborated with Stanford and GE to create magnetic ink and ERMA, a computer that automated check processing. By 1960, automation caused tens of thousands of workers to be replaced by machines.
Checks were flown daily from city to city for clearing, until the terrorist attacks of 9/11 left billions of dollars in checks stranded on the tarmac for days. Thousands of people and their check processing machines stood idle. Within months, research and development into check imaging was accelerated, laws were changed, and in less than 15 years after the attacks, bank patrons were able to deposit checks with imaging devices at offices, ATMs, or with apps on phones. Thousands of check processing machines and their operators faded out.
Painting cars involves chemicals toxic to humans; that’s why BMW has over 240 robots doing it in their U.S. factories now.
Emerging technology is enabling another seismic shift in how we work, but the end result is similar: Old technology and its users are becoming obsolete.
In financial services, many computer systems do not communicate with each other, resulting in the tedious manual transfer of data. Bots, digital labor without the electro-mechanical features, are increasingly taking over that work. Some data transfer jobs will certainly disappear.
What does this rapid shift to robotic processing mean for talent development professionals? Ultimately, humans must still create and operate the digital labor, and that means new skills and abilities for workers.
Here’s how it’s beginning to play out. It begins in the school system. A basic high school diploma is no longer sufficient for most factory jobs; graduates must have the math, science, and technology skills to interact with factory robots. In higher education, universities like Clemson will teach agriculture and robotics to future engineers and agri-business operators.
For existing workers, the Robotic Industries Association and similar industry groups are offering conferences and webinars to support people learning about robotics, especially in manufacturing. Udemy has numerous offerings on bot creation. And, the American Banking Association is devoting more and more learning resources to fintech, especially aimed at smaller community banks most at risk from this technological upheaval. ATD also provides a plethora of content in learning tech, including a learning technology conference every year called ATD TechKnowledge (TK). TK offers practical sessions from experts in the field that help learning professionals develop and adapt their strategies and solutions to the changing world of learning in the digital age.
For those of us supporting the existing workforce, we must—as we have done for decades—be at the forefront of change. We must prepare ourselves so that we can prepare others. What does that look like? Some of the task ahead of us is universal, and some will be industry-specific.
For those of us in financial services, it means learning everything we can about fintech. Research into AI, Big Data, bots, and so on is critical to build understanding and credibility. Consulting with internal and external experts will be vital for learning professionals to identify the core technical skills employees will need in the next one to three years to remain competent and competitive. We’ll need use hard data and influence with executive leaders to secure investment in training to create the necessary skills.
Of course, some of us will train employees on the new technical skills of how to program and operate digital labor. But interpersonal skills are even more necessary now that technology is taking hold of the technical aspects. Humans, with all their humanness, will be behind the technology. LinkedIn’s CEO was widely quoted recently about the criticality of soft skills in the digital age.
Leadership will still be needed to set direction and allocate resources. As of now, AI cannot replace the human brain and its level of creativity. Teamwork and communication will still be vital, but it may be harder as we spend more time with technology and less with people. Robots will be members of the team, changing the dynamics of how work gets done. Managers will be managing human and digital labor and must be adept at both.
It’s daunting, as it no doubt was in the 1950s and 2000s. But, it’s vital that talent development professionals lead from the front by acquiring knowledge and skills about the new technology in their industry. And, we have to learn and prepare leaders, managers, and staff on how to function in an environment with much more digital labor. By focusing on the new technology skills (while not letting go of our humanity) we can help our companies survive and thrive—and maybe help some of today’s skilled workers avoid becoming the check processors of 2020 and beyond.