MIT Sloan Visiting Lecturer Irving Wladawsky-Berger
From The Wall Street Journal
People have long feared that machines are coming for our jobs. Throughout the Industrial Revolution there were periodic panics about the impact of automation on work, going back to the so-called Luddites, textile workers who in the 1810s smashed the new machines that were threatening their jobs.
Automation anxieties have understandably accelerated in recent years, as our increasingly smart machines are now being applied to activities requiring intelligence and cognitive capabilities that not long ago were viewed as the exclusive domain of humans. But on balance, such fears appear to be unfounded, noted the World Bank in a comprehensive recent report on The Changing Nature of Work. Our problem is not that there won’t be enough work in the future. Our key problem is that, in many countries, the workforce is not prepared for our fast unfolding future.
The first thing an organization can do to nurture innovation is to tap into its own human capital. At a high level, all organizations care about ideas, and more often than not, in corporate settings, people already have ideas. Staff have expertise, know the customers, and throughout the organization they can interface with interesting sources of data and information. It’s just that their day-to-day requirements do not allow them to execute. Slack time can be an important lever for incubating creativity and a meaningful way for executing ideas employees have had in mind for some time.
But if you ask employees to be entrepreneurial, it’s not same – they may end up directing their own unit, but not building and scaling a multi-billion dollar start-up. It’s hard when you have the safety and surroundings of a large organization to act like entrepreneurs who have to attract capital from outside. The challenge is once you identify talent and the ideas inside to incentivize to execute an experiment as though it were a start-up. Perhaps the biggest organizational change is to think like a small start-up.
From an organizational perspective, firms can learn a great deal from university accelerators. At MIT, we have Global Founders’ Skill Accelerator, where we get students with good ideas to scale businesses. The interesting thing is that students who have no experience of entrepreneurship get feedback and advice from a set of seasoned entrepreneurs. Similarly, an enterprise may have skills and expertise on the tech side, but no track record of taking an idea and scaling it to a multi-billion project. The challenge is how to recruit entrepreneurs to train employees with the good ideas to take them to the next level. Read More »
We know what productivity growth requires: investments in new technology. For previous generations, this was factories full of machines, first powered by steam and then by electricity. More recently it was the arrival of computers, which changed how work was organized within and across firms.
We often perceive the impact of new technology imperfectly and with a lag, and today is no different. We can see a wave of hardware and software innovations underway — technologies such as 3D printing and distributed ledgers will allow manufacturing and finance to become more dispersed — but it is hard to know exactly where it will take us.
Andy McAfee and I have just released a short e-book, Race Against the Machine. In it, we try to reconcile two important facts. 1) Technology continues to progress rapidly. In fact, the past decade has seen the fastest productivity growth since the 1960s, but 2) median wages and employment have both stagnated, leaving millions of people worse off than before. This presents a paradox: if technology and productivity are improving so much why are millions being left behind?
In the book, we document remarkable advances in digital technologies in particular. Innovations like IBM’s Watson, Google’s self-driving car, Apple’s Siri are turning science fiction into reality. Machines are doing more and more tasks that once only humans could do.