Is the tech revolution helping or replacing the front-line worker?

I have noticed some trends in recent statements about the future of work that I want to explore with this post.

The middle manager is now the front-line worker and is soon to be replaced.

The first is that the future technological work seems to be designed by technology evangelists for technology evangelists without considering front-line workers. To achieve the technological evangelist’s future, they convert senior managers to bring the revolution to their companies. As a result, the technological revolution focuses on the benefits to senior managers and not frontline workers. The evangelists rarely look at the way the frontline worker because technology is designed to replace them. As we know from economics, technology is a labour saving investment.  To the extent that the front-line worker is not a knowledge worker that is they do not have the work of strategists or chief financial officers, technology will be designed to replace them as the highest cost of labor. Despite the technological marvels, the management theories, and the new ways of working, there is still a need for the front-line worker, which creates an additional problem.

We face the problem that we cannot all be knowledge workers because someone has to do the work. We see why the technological evangelism falls short of its promise.[1] Instead of the knowledge worker who has to make sense of the technological evangelism, often described as new ways of working, it is the front-line worker. Yet, the technological gurus rarely sit down with the frontline to figure out what technology will work for them because technology is designed and developed to replace the frontline worker. In turn, the middle manager is eliminated as frontline workers become augmented, or they become the frontline worker, as the organisation gets flatter.

To the extent their role was more a supervisor and less a knowledge worker, they are no longer needed. We can see this in the public sector where tasks like planning applications, HR and benefit assessments are turned into routine tasks supported by “smart forms” and algorithms. The same is occurring in the private sector as legal services are being transformed by the need for less routine legal tasks.

Technology to remove judgement and avoid responsibility.

The second trend is that technology is being used to replace, or at least, augment a worker’s judgement to make them more efficient or to remove them. Technology will remove the need for human judgement.  Frontline workers can make errors or can make mistakes. The reason why they make mistakes is that they have free will and can make their own decisions. Instead of better training or supervision (active management), we see technology used to supervise their judgement or to remove them entirely.

We can see how algorithm and automated trades have changed the way Wall Street works. Another way to see the process at work is to consider the intent of Privacy by Design. The process is there to remove any chance a person will have access to data, which could compromise someone’s privacy. The worker will not be taught about privacy, trained to use their judgement, or have the laws explained to them so they can work effectively and efficiently. Instead, the goal will be to remove their judgement by creating a technological process that removes them.

The future though is not that robots will replace workers or that workers will become robots. Instead, the future of work is that the worker is needed as a source of judgement to be harvested by the technological process. The social worker will still need to visit the client, but that will not be by their judgement but by the prescribe systems set out by their organisation. The command and control that they usually escape by being in the field will be with them at each stage. They will only act on or within a framework of instructions to reduce or eliminate the need for judgement. We can see this at work in the Data Protection Act as organisations struggle with how to share personal data in a way that complies with the law. The law is often blamed for the failure to share in critical cases.

Upon analysis, we find the law was only an excuse. The actors involved failed to share because they were uncertain of the law or feared blame. As a result, they acted on the belief that it was better to do nothing, not share. In other words, they acted on the belief that what is not allowed, is forbidden. Now organisations have started to reverse the equation so that workers are encouraged to share unless there is a reason not to. In other words, what is not forbidden is allowed. Yet, neither view is correct. Both subvert the law because they flout its letter, you must have permission to share, or its intent, you are not to share without good reason.

In both approaches, the organisation avoids the problem that they have to train and trust staff to use their judgement. Some organisations may develop their staff and train them to make the right decision. Even if they avoid the “sheep dip” approach to mass presentations that simply tell the employee what to do rather than help them learn, it will fail because of technological demands. Each failure will increase the pressure for a technological solution.

Workers who neither want the responsibility nor are rewarded for the right decision will encourage the technological solution. The solution will be an algorithm or a computer programme that indicates when and how information is to be shared based on the content and context of the data. A worker, or the customer, will input the data and the system will read it and use an algorithm to classify the data for how it is to be shared.  The organisation can avoid responsibility because the programme or technology have made the decision.

Even though both trends are encouraged because they seem to help the worker and give them greater freedom to act, the reverse is true. The trends encourage a greater command and control in the guise of a networked worker. What remains to be done, though, is to work out how these systems and processes will be implemented in the public sector which is slowly waking up to their opportunity.

I would be interested in your views on these trends.

[1] I do not believe that all manufacturing or all services can be reduced to automatic systems. Someone has to build the machines and someone has to maintain them. Even if 3D printing makes the parts or a more advanced computer assisted manufacturing process, there will be people who need to assembly the item. At the same time, unique services will still need more of a human element than a mechanical or technological element even if technology can enhance or augment it. To put it directly, robots will not replace all workers and workers will not become robots.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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