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Enterprises Need To Consider The Human Cost Of Blanket Digital Transformation

As News Editor of Silicon UK, Roland keeps a keen eye on the daily tech news coverage for the site, while also focusing on stories around cyber security, public sector IT, innovation, AI, and gadgets.

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OPINION: The speed of change could leave thousands out of work and without the right skills

You can’t swing a metaphorical cat at a tech conference these days without hitting an IT exec uttering the words ‘digital transformation’; it’s the buzz-phrase du jour in the IT world.

But what might conjure visions of people turning into digital beings in the vein of cult film Tron, digital transformation is simply a flashy term used for IT strategies and doctrines than embrace the ‘as-a-service’ model facilitated by the cloud, mobility, automation, and the rigorous use of big data within organisations.

Digital transformation is often lumbered with the other popular term ‘disruption’. Where once being disruptive was the reason given to pupils when they got sent out of class, these days it’s a positive trait.

Digital startups are disruptive, challenging established players and practises in established industries with a new way to conduct business and transactions, normally via a mobile app. And major companies are being encouraged to embrace disruption to prevent their legacy from being pulled out from underneath them by the likes of Uber and Airbnb.

Let’s get digital

digital identityHaving spoken to all manner of companies including professional motorsport and sailing teams, there is no doubt that getting stuck in with digital transformation, along with the Internet of Things (IoT) and chewing through masses of data in an automated fashion, can yield big benefits in terms of operational efficiency and business outcomes, going so far as to hone a competitive edge and accelerate research and development.

But while making everything digital, outsourcing IT to cloud platforms and automating systems through the IoT and machine-learning algorithms yields some positive disruption, there is a huge dollop of negativity that comes along with it.

And that’s around jobs.

Being more efficient and automated means that a big workforce is not necessarily needed, and the embracing of more digital tech means workers will need to adapt or even pivot their skillsets if they hope to be useful in a digitally transformed enterprise.

This is easier said by tech luminaries than done by workers.

The pace of change in the tech world means that learning the right skills to stay relevant in an organisation or industry in the throes of disruption becomes an incredibly challenging proposition. I for one can do little else than put words on a website; if a robot replaces me I have no technical skills to fall back on or any form of artistic ability; essentially, I’d be out on the human scrap heap.

And this is form of human impact and cost, appears to be something that a lot of big IT firms are glossing over. At Fujitsu Forum 2016 in Munich, I posed the question at a trio of executives about what can be done with this human toll that may need to be paid on the path to digital transformation.

The response I received was that not only can people retrain but they can also use things like open data, cloud platforms and digital services to startup micro businesses and discover new roles they can play in the digital world.

A palatable answer, but I do not believe everyone is in the position to embrace such transformation, regardless of the benefits it brings.

When the mines were closed in South Wales it nearly ruined whole communities; the working population was suddenly left jobless with no other skills to fall back on or the direction by which they could learn new skills. While this was some time ago, the impact is still felt to this day with some communities stuck in poverty, with precious few jobs in the area, yet they are unable to sell up and move as no one wants to buy the residents’ houses due to the lack of prospects in the region.

Industry disruption effectively wrecked part of a nation already fairly cash-strapped. The same could happen with unchecked digital transformation but on a national and even global scale.

Some may worry about the intelligent robots coming to steal their jobs, but that’s still someway off in many ways. Yet the impact of digital transformation and disruption has already been felt.

While touting digital transformation as part of its business strategy, Fujitsu had to let go of 1,800 people due to disruption to its system integration model, and those people were culled due to their lack of relevant skills, despite Fujitsu execs touting the opportunities such disruption brings.

Of course, Fujitsu is not alone in this area, with other companies restructuring and shedding staff due to digital disruption. Companies like HP have split and shrunk due to the changing market forces brought on by digital disruption.

Softly, softly

© Maxim Malevich - Fotolia.comBut while the mantra of digital transformation is heralded across the industry I believe there is a need to take a careful approach to its adoption. Digital tech should empower people to do their jobs more efficiently and unlock the opportunity to be more innovative, rather than be a means to slice workforces and replace people with digital systems.

Technology companies are now so vast with huge revenues and the ability to challenge governments, that they need to embrace the responsibility that comes with such power, ensuring they furnish enterprises and businesses with tools that protect the human rather than place workers out to pasture in a field rapidly shrinking with resources to support a growing population.

That’s not to say digital transformation should be shunned, as it is arguably the only way to save inefficient organisations like the NHS and to ensure governments can work effectively in the Internet age and a world where more people need to be governed.

However, rather than farm out everything to automation, enterprises undergoing digital transformation strategies should instead consider how they can keep hold of their workers but rework the way they are deployed, thereby reskilling them as part of the process rather than forging on ahead and leaving only those with the foresight of the ability to turn on a sixpence to join them on the journey.

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