Recently, an online food aggregator made news in India for laying off around 10% of its staff. Immediately the question arose: was this a sign of a slowing economy or the cascading effect of technology? When the company confirmed that it had, indeed, automated processes and hence rationalized staff, it brought into stark reality the impacts of a fast-changing technology landscape.
Adapting to this kind of change is critical to the future of work. In my career, I have personally witnessed the tectonic shift as we moved from the age of the fixed-line telephone to the smartphone. Voice ruled then; data rules now. But what will rule in the future — and what will it look like?
Extending the technology opportunity
Even as the blistering pace of technology pushed the boundaries of the telecommunications industry a decade ago, it simultaneously gave India a huge opportunity in the offshore revolution. As technology and connectivity has advanced further, so has the ability to do more work from offshore locations. GCCs (Global Capability Centers) are cases in point. They have evolved their proposition from being labour arbitrage to truly providing a range of advanced capabilities to their parent organizations.
Historically, companies have used the GCC model to deliver business processes and IT services. These were delivered onshore and in many cases, offshore. However, as the model matures and incremental demand for these services declines, enterprises are increasingly looking to their GCCs to build more strategic and value-added capabilities such as research and development (R&D), digital and analytics. The GCCs not only deliver processes but drive innovation and focus more on higher-end services. In other words, companies want their GCCs to be capability centres, not just delivery centres.
The march of today’s technology is mirrored in these organizations. From call centres 10 to 15 years ago, GCCs have now become pioneers in implementing AI, machine learning, and robotic process automation. In the process of this evolution, thousands of young Indians have been trained in new technologies and processes and workforce transformation is unfolding before our eyes.
But the pressure to keep this workforce transformation going is growing. India now has close to 5 million people entering the workforce every year — intensifying the need to harness this talent, adapt organizations to the new age and train these people in suitable skills so that they are relevant for a technology-enabled work environment.
This is especially true for women. As per World Bank data, women account for 48% of the Indian population but have not benefitted equally from India’s rapid economic growth. Less than a third of women are working or actively looking for a job. It is critical to enhance their skillsets so they may thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Building quality alongside quantity
The sheer quantity of the employable and the technology that is rapidly developing can often dominate the discourse around the future of work in India. As business evolves and adapts to address this quantity, words like Fourth Industrial Revolution, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, bots and robotic process automation (RPA), among many others, pepper our presentations and conversations. They are no longer jargon but have moved from the periphery of the future to become our daily reality, to be accepted, embraced and used to improve and scale businesses.
But what about quality? Are we all living better as a result of this evolution of work? Do we have more or less time today? Even though we are admittedly addicted to our various devices, we need to step back and assess if they make our work more efficient – and if we are spending less time on work and more on achieving a better work-life balance?
Technology has brought us to the edge of tomorrow, blurring the boundaries between the needs of today and the demands of the future. Yet, empathy for our fellow humans remains the one thing machines cannot provide. This is relevant as we increasingly invest more and more in devices that reduce the time for interpersonal connections and conversations — the very things that build empathy.
In India, shifting consumer attitudes may reflect a renewed value of the interpersonal. Take the changing expectations and aspirations associated with inheritance. We are already observing an erosion of the value of material inheritance as intangibles take precedence. Handing down a handcrafted watch or heritage property will, in time, have no value while access in its multiple forms may become more aspirational. This could range from an aspired-to club membership to access to people, or even information.
We live in interesting times. There are both promises and fears surrounding the expectations of a future fuelled by technology. Losing sight of the quality of interactions in the midst of the number of devices is a real concern. In the rush to increase the skills of a population, it may be important to remember that as the basic automation and machine learning move towards becoming commodities, uniquely human skills will become more valuable.