Sunday, August 9, 2009

Knowledge-worker roles in the 21st century - 1/2

It is rare to find a piece in the media nowadays that doesn't have a certain "view" on the important social and economic issues of today. Underlying every opinion piece is ideology of some sort. Slavish commitment to the ideology results in the writer typically producing such a biased view that it only appeals to those who are already prejudiced with the same view. It has become extremely difficult (especially with the evolution of the Internet and with blogs) to reach an informed and balanced view on a subject by referencing an authoritative piece on the subject.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to come across this piece in the Washington Post today. The piece by Gregory Clark, a professor of economics at UC, Davis presents the view that many of us are afraid to admit. And that is that the US will very soon be forced to confront a reality where the technological advances in the economy today creates its own Haves and Have-Nots. And the chasm between the Haves and Have-Nots would be so huge and so impossible to bridge that the government will be forced to play an equalizing role, so that the social order in society remains more or less intact. So how is new technology creating this chasm? More importantly, for me and my readers, what are the kinds of knowledge-worker jobs that are going to be valued in the twenty-first century?

The last fifty years of the second millenium have been marked by the emergence of the computer. A machine designed to do millions of logical and mathematical operations in a fraction of a second, the computer has now started to take over a vast majority of the computing and logical thinking that human beings would usually perform. With the ability of the computer (through programming languages) to execute long sequences of operations at high speed, the end-result is a powerful "proxy" intelligence that can be harnessed to do both good and harm. And this proxy-intelligence is taking the place of traditional intelligence; the role performed by human beings in society. And this intelligence comes without moods, expectations of recognition/ praise; in fact, without any kind of the emotional inconsistencies and quirks shown by human beings. No surprise that many of the front-end business processes involving the delivery of basic and transactional services to consumers is being replaced by the computer (such as the ATM machine). With the computer becoming an increasingly integral part of the economy, I see two kinds of jobs that knowledge-workers can embrace in this economy. I am going to cover one of these roles in this post and the second, in the next post.

The first role is that of the accelarator towards an increasing automation of simple business processes. The cost benefit of the computer over human beings is obvious; however in order for the computer to perform even in a limited way like human beings, detailed instruction sets with logical end-points at each node need to be created. It requires the imagination and creativity of the human mind to do this programming in a really effective manner - i.e. the computer actually being able to do what the human being in the same position would have been able to do. Also, it requires human ingenuity to engineer the machine to do this efficiently - within the desired speed and operating cost constraints. This role of an accelarator or an enabler of the "outsourcing" of hitherto human performed activity to machines will be increasingly in demand over the next 10-15 years.

This role will require a unique mix of skills. First and foremost, the role requires a detailed understanding of business processes, the roles played by the various players, the inputs and outputs at various stages. The business process understanding needs to span multiple companies and industries. Let's take something that Clark refers in his article: change to a flight reservation. The business process calls for not just access to the reservations database and the flights database, but also things like changing meal options, providing seating information (with information about the aircraft seating chart), reconfirming the frequent flyer account number, etc. Additionally, providing options for payment if there is going to be a fee involved.

Second, the role requires the ability to understand the capabilities of IT platforms and packages to able to perform the desired function. This role actually has two components. One is the mapping of human actions into the logic understood by a computer system. The second is the system architecture/ engineering side, which is the configuration of the various building blocks (comprised of different IT "boxes" delivering different functionality) to create an end-to-end process delivery capability. Given the lack of standards that exist for these types of solutions, any deep skills in this area involves understanding the peculiarities of specific solutions in a great level of detail.

I'd love to hear more from readers on this. Have you seen these roles emerging in your industry? What other types of skills does the enabler or accelarator role need?

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