Automation of the office world: are we running out of work?

By Franz Gurtner, 25.11.2017

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Digital transformation is changing everything, also the work of the future. One of the most interesting visionaries on this topic is Prof Helmut Karner, company consultant and cofounder of the Föhrenbergkreis. Wiesner-Hager discussed future work trends with him in 2001. For the current contact we met with him to reflect on the developments over the past 15 years, to sound out his predictions and take a new glimpse into the crystal ball.


The digital transformation in the working world is gaining speed. What do you think about the developments over the past 15 years?

Karner: In 2001 it was already clear that the factors of production of capital, work, land or raw materials were being replaced by knowledge. Not knowledge in terms of information – information alone is no competitive advantage. It is the targeted transformation of information into knowledge that makes a company successful. Knowledge work currently comprises 60 to 70 percent of the jobs in Austria. What is new is that automation is now also gaining ground in these areas of the working world. This development has once again particularly accelerated during the past five years.    


When one thinks about automation, immediately images arise of industrial machines, mass production, etc. How can automation be understood with respect to knowledge work?

Karner: Thomas Davenport (Note: American author and analytics specialist) speaking in this context said that we have reached the age of Analytics 3.0. Analytics 1.0 describes the classic database system from the 1970s. The data came from internal company sources and was restricted to descriptive analyses. The advent of big data in the noughties was also the start of Analytics 2.0, which was determined by massive volumes of data.

Many employees were involved in analysing and assessing the data and drawing conclusions to generate knowledge from the information. In Analytics 3.0 this “on the fly” task is handled by systems. That enables lightning fast insight into company processes and automated decisions based on them.


Are there examples of where Analytics 3.0 is currently already being used?

Karner: There certainly are. “Intelligent Alert” from Amazon is the perfect example: Every search query is examined for 40 criteria. Derived from these are your areas of interest, e.g. your future demand. That makes itself noticeable on the next visit to Amazon – the system independently suggests products for you to buy, which it assumes are of interest to you. Another example is the customer and loyalty cards of major retail chains, which are organised according to a similar principle.


Then will there be no more work for us “office people” in the future?

Karner: In the Chinese metropolises or in Singapore, where the amount of knowledge work is 80 percent, it is now already the case that the jobs, which were performed by administrators in the past, are now increasingly assumed by software tools. That of course does not mean that we are running out of work but it quite foreseeable that the focuses of the work will shift in the future.


Where will the focuses of the work then shift?

Karner: In a few areas man is still far superior to the machine, above all with respect to creativity: Man will always find a place in the conceptual arena, with respect to new ideas or innovations. Teamwork is more important than ever. More heads with different competencies and problem solving tactics bring new perspectives into play. Emotional, e.g. typically human competencies, such as empathy and motivational ability will in future play a pivotal role. However also skill is and will remain a key factor.


And what impacts does that have on the offices of the future?

Karner: Offices of the future reflect these new work priorities. Flexibilisation is the order of the day. The possibility of compiling teams as quickly as possible – also spatially – is decisive for a company’s success. Google – as the spearhead of innovative offices – relies on “casual collision” areas, for example, in the new US headquarters. These are lounges or working cafés, which were designed with the aim of having scientists from different branches meet and exchange with one another, which increases the level of knowledge of both parties. The office of the future can be imagined like a “corporate campus”, an amalgamation of life, and work, private and public sphere.


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