Your Future Depends on Your Creative Mind
Your future, and your children's future, depends on your being able to add value where computer software cannot. This means that you and your children need to be creative thinkers and, even more importantly, recognise the potential value of creative ideas. The biggest threat to your job and your working future is not outsourcing to China or India. It is not reckless bankers. It is not even idiot politicians (though they come close!) Rather, the biggest threat is innovative new technologies that can do ever more of the tasks that people like you do – but at significantly less cost.
A Brief History of Technological Advancement
Of course, technology also improved the efficiency of factories. Sophisticated machine tools allowed factories to turn out more products with less employee time required for each product. Fortunately, this boosted productivity, so factories continued to grow and employ workers, albeit they would be operating machines rather than manually assembling products. Moreover, the factories that made machine tools also needed employees. Thus technology did not destroy jobs – it just changed them.
As long as productivity generally grows along with technological development, this works just fine. Moreover, farm labourers and factory workers, even those with basic educations, can quickly be trained to operate new machines or perform new tasks in factories.
To put it in a nutshell, technology has been replacing jobs relentlessly for two centuries. However, this has not resulted in global unemployment, because that technology has increased productivity, creating new jobs and more income which buys products which keeps the factories profitable. It is a virtuous circle. However, this virtuous circle has depended on two things:
A Quick Note About Offshoring
Software Is the New Technology
Software that analyses huge databases and on-line resources can review far more information than can human beings and increasingly sophisticated algorithms can even identify trends and generate recommendations. What once required a highly trained and knowledgeable consultant days or weeks to complete can often now be performed by computers in hours or even minutes.
For instance, legal discovery software can scan far more case law and legislation than can experienced paralegals. More importantly, it can identify relevant laws and cases and compile everything into a nifty report. Automated accounting software can replace innumerable accountants crunching numbers. Moreover, the software does the work far faster and makes fewer mistakes.
The combination of highly sophisticated software, masses of data on various networks and ever more powerful computer processors will only increase this trend. Pattern recognition software, will allow computers to perform even more tasks that once required humans.
There Is No Turning Back
Let us face facts: this is not going to happen. If the USA, for instance, were to outlaw replacing jobs with humans, business’s operational costs would sky-rocket, making their products more expensive than those produced in other countries. As a result, Americans would either buy imports or be obliged to buy very expensive American products. This would not help the country’s massive budget deficit. It would also kill technological innovation. Is that something we want? I doubt it.
As for rolling back technology, I can only ask how far. Shall we go back to the 1950s when factory workers in the USA and Europe were relatively highly paid? Shall we make it illegal for businesses to use robots, sophisticated production equipment, computerised design software and all subsequent technological innovation? Would consumers be willing to pay more for the less sophisticated products that would result from such an action?
Should we mandate how many people must work in every factory, even if that will vastly increase the cost and reduce the quantity of goods made in those factories?
Should we bring textile jobs from Bangladesh back to Europe, putting the Bangladeshi workers out of jobs and ensuring that even a pair of cheap bluejeans cost nearly as much as designer trousers made in Italy?
On first sight, some of these proposals might seem attractive, but reversing technological progress will also reverse productivity. That means people will not be able to buy as many nice things as they can do now. That, in turn, will mean less money in the economy which will cost us jobs. In short, going backwards is not a solution. And it is certainly not innovative!
The Times They Are A Changin’
For the foreseeable future, there are a few things computers cannot do very well. One of these is to recognise creative ideas. Do note, however, that computers can generate ideas. This is so easy, even I could make a program to do it – and I am not a programmer (though I have taught myself programming). However, and fortunately for us humans, computers cannot identify which ideas are truly creative and which are nonsense. So most computerised idea generation programmes just spew out a lot of silly ideas, possibly with a few good ones hidden among them.
This ability to generate and analyse creative ideas separates us from machines for the time being. Thus, although software can review case law, and find relevant legislation far faster than can a human, we still need a creative lawyer to weave that information into a compelling story in order to make an argument before a judge and jury. And only a creative lawyer can read the expressions and gestures of the judge and jury in order to change her argument to suit changing moods in the courthouse. For instance, if jury members are looking bored, the lawyer might change the tone of her voice or jump ahead to a compelling point in order to regain the jury’s attention.
Likewise, accounting and financial software can do much of the work that once required humans. But ultimately, creative accountants and financial experts are needed to interpret those numbers in order to make decisions about how to manage budget, taxes, investments and other factors.
Indeed, this is one other key thing computer software cannot yet do, and is unlikely to be able to do for some time: make major decisions and take responsibility for them. Creative senior managers will be needed to interpret a growing mountain of computer generated reports, consider ideas, use their insight and make decisions that keep their companies ahead of their competitors.
What This Means to You
If you are responsible for a company, on the other hand, you want to ensure that you are hiring the most creative people you can find as well as ensure you retain and encourage them. As more and more of your business processes are being managed by machines, you will need creativity to retain your competitive edge. And that creativity will have to come from your employees or contractors for some time to come.
Where Is It All Going?
What do you think?
“Difference Engine: Luddite legacy” (4 November 2011) The Economist, http://www.economist.com/node/21536460
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Learn more about The Way of the Innovation Master, a book on implementing an innovation process in an organisation like yours
Jeffrey is also the co-founder of
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Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium