Technology has had a profound impact on the workplace for several decades. But the pace of change has quickened and is beginning to have a hugely disruptive effect on business. And the upheaval is only expected to intensify over the next few years.
Organisations are using technology to create new business models, move closer to customers and improve productivity and innovation. But at the same time, they are suffering from more complexity, difficulty keeping skills up to date and increased interdependence. These challenges are exacerbated by rapid change in customer expectations and work culture.
While executives see technology as a way to achieve more at work and enhance job satisfaction, these benefits are often undermined by increased time and competitive pressure as organisations seek to do more with less.
Automation will undoubtedly cause many jobs to disappear but new roles will be created and not all functions will be similarly affected.
Overall, technology can be a huge source of strength and competitive advantage in the workplace. But it may also increase pressure on people and reduce their professional satisfaction, harming staff well-being and business performance. Organisations need to understand both challenges and opportunities if employees are to realise their aspirations.
Microsoft recently sponsored a report, ‘Changing roles: How technology is transforming business functions’, written by The Economist Intelligence Unit, which probes workplace transformation in the midst of change.
The report, based on a global survey, advisory board findings and in-depth interviews with industry experts, explores how the workplace is evolving and the effect technology will have on how people collaborate, form global teams and make decisions across various business functions.
The survey included responses from 608 business executives globally. Half of respondents are from companies with $500 million or less in annual revenue, 15 per cent with revenue of $500 million to $1 billion, 16 per cent with $1 billion to $5 billion, eight per cent with $5 billion to $10 billion and 10 per cent with more than $10 billon.
Respondents were distributed evenly among five functional ‘buckets finance, IT, HR, marketing and sales, and other, and a series of in-depth interviews were conducted with members of the advisory board, senior executives and industry experts.
The following are the key findings of the report:
Work will become more complex: Individual workloads will increase, driven partly by the need to respond to rapidly swelling quantities of real-time data from automation of all kinds and from greater demands for collaboration.
Thirty-six per cent of survey respondents expect work to become more complex and 26 per cent of respondents, across all functions, believe it will involve much greater amounts of data. Globalisation and the growing interconnectedness of companies and sectors will also multiply the number of variables companies must take into account.
Lack of time is the biggest challenge: The ability of technology to help people do more with less does not always help executives save time. Some 45 per cent of survey respondents cite time constraints as their main problem, with people who feel successful in their current role most affected – 46 per cent compared with 39 per cent of those who believe they are not successful.
Collaboration is crucial: Team-working is the new normal both locally and globally. Thirty-five per cent of survey respondents believe work will require co-ordination between more people across multiple functions. Collaboration is the best way to make the most of individual expertise, respond swiftly to business problems and boost competitiveness. HR must optimise use of specialists and freelancers, and employees across functions must work with these temporary colleagues.
Gaining new technology skills is the best way to advance professional goals: In the face of increased automation and technological advances, all organisational functions recognise the need to keep learning. Nearly a quarter of respondents (23 per cent) include mastering new technology in their top-three ways to achieve career aspirations. Thirty-two per cent cite acquiring new skills through education and training as the opportunity most likely to help them achieve their professional goals. This is becoming more important with the rise of millennials who are much more knowledgeable about technology than most of their seniors.
Technology is already disrupting the workplace. Forward-looking organisations are deploying big data, analytics software and cloud-enabled collaborative applications to improve efficiency, introduce new business models and deliver more customer-centric products and services. They are moving towards team-working and hiring experts for specific requirements. Even domestic players are taking a global view.
It is encouraging that about half of respondents in the survey say that technology is letting them do more in less time and work more flexibly. And it is also good news that most executives feel successful, fulfilled and optimistic about work.
Realising the benefits of technology is, however, getting harder too. Some individuals and businesses risk being overwhelmed by the data deluge and inadequate software tools, leading to poor decision-making and tactical responses that undermine long-term strategy. The potential can only be realised if companies empower their workforces and equip them with appropriate skills and resources without expecting executives to use the time saved by technology as an opportunity to take on more work.
New roles will appear, such as data scientists, and while continuous retraining is essential, new work methods are needed across all functions. This requires culture change, but successful change won’t work unless organisations win people’s hearts and minds too.
The ‘Terminator’ scenario is not imminent but organisations must, like Iron Man, use technology to help make them invincible, concludes the report.