MIT Sloan Professor Thomas Kochan
From MIT Sloan Custom Studio
Technology platforms and the IoT are clearly changing the structure of organizations — and the valuation of companies today is out of line with the numbers of jobs they create. In the past, the General Motors, and even the Googles, created lots of new jobs and the valuation of the company reflected this — but compare Netflix, just 3,700 employees, with its old-world equivalent, Blockbuster, which at its peak had $7 billion in revenue and 60,000 employees. Today, Netflix has a larger market capitalization. The world is changing — and the question is, will we create enough good quality jobs to meet the needs of the workforce of the future?
There’s an old Japanese phrase that came out of robotics work in the 1980s and 1990s in manufacturing that technologists ought to begin to understand and build into their work: “It’s workers who give wisdom to machines.” People give wisdom to the technology and then technology can in turn enhance human judgment. We can solve big problems in the world and create big opportunities and the next generation of inventions and jobs.
But it will mean some major changes to how businesses are run — and how companies view (and use) technology.
Technology is a tool — not a goal.
It’s not technologies that will solve future challenges — it’s how we use them that counts. That means we have to start with human and societal problems, and figure out how to put technology to work to address and complement what we can do together with other institutions. We must define the questions we ask of technologists and not view technology as an autonomous, deterministic force, but as an asset that is mobilized to address these important issues. Most important, we have to educate technologists and not leave them to define the objectives of the technology. If we do, they will define it very narrowly and squeeze out as much human variabilities as possible, which would lead us to false solutions. A broad participation in defining the problems will enable us to find our way to a better world for everyone.
Technology platforms need to be designed with stakeholders in mind.
There’s no single deterministic model or market design for digital platform design. Uber uses data to control its customers and driver workforce. What would be different about the experience for drivers, and maybe customers, if that information was decentralized so they could maximize their own incomes and improve their own livelihoods? We have to think about how we design these new platforms, so the benefits are more broadly shared across the different stakeholders.
In the long run, a good business model is one where the more your customers and employees know how the company works and have information to control their actions, the more committed they will be to building the business to benefit both themselves and the organization that’s providing that information. We’ve got to think about ways customers, employees, even public/private partnerships can share information to use these technologies much more holistically than for some specific stakeholder. In this way, customers become part of the innovation cycle. Maybe not the first mover for innovation but the second generation, and that will create new jobs, opportunities and applications.
It’s not about technology per se, it’s the interactions with people that use them and organizational designs that drives high levels of productivity, customer service and innovation. The new, flexible enterprise also has to draw on people outside the organization more fully. We must ask what’s in it for various stakeholders, and have them contribute to further development and inventions. If they are invested in it and see joint gains, it continues a positive cycle of innovation.
As organizational structures become more flexible, corporations will need to adapt.
A flexible corporate structure will need a lot more coordination across groups and different bodies of expertise. That means the “solid,” functional firms — finance, operations, HR, marketing and so on — are really going to be challenged to work out how the discovery and deployment of new apps will involve people across functions.
That doesn’t mean the old-world corporation is defunct. We still need people who have specialized knowledge in IT and marketing, but the productivity comes in linking them. Knowledge bases won’t go away, but the people and skills most valuable in the future (and incomes already reflect this) are the ones that have hybrid skills with technology know-how and figure out how to apply to functional areas. HR people won’t only specialize in compensation and performance management, but also know how to utilize technology to better design how we do our work.
With a lot of knowledge at the edges of organizations, strategy has to keep an eye on what the business is trying to achieve and ask how to be successful on a financial and sustainable basis, as well as when it needs to ally with others outside its traditional boundaries. This remains the role of the CEO and the board. However, they also have to rely on information flowing up rather than dictating what will be. That day is over.
The relationship between companies and workers is changing, too.
Technology is leading to a more decentralized workplace, with the flexibility to work in different places at different times. But do we have the managerial wisdom to take advantage of the new norm? There’s still the legacy of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s management control thinking: “If you’re not in the office, I don’t trust you’re not at home playing computer games.” The distributed workplace calls for a mindset change in management to ensure that we work with people and don’t compensate them for the amount of time spent in the office, but for the contribution they make and the work they do. If we can get over this managerial hurdle, we can take advantage of distributed workplaces.
We have to get over the notion that it’s all about shareholder value and the shorter term, and instead invest for the long term and listen to employees. This means finding ways to expand and create value, but also discovering ways to distribute value more equitably. At MIT, we have a good companies and good jobs initiative, and are going to hold a series of multi-stakeholder forums around these broad questions: What makes a company a great place from the standpoint of financial return, but also good for jobs and career opportunities?
The reality is, if we don’t start to engage in this way and have a social contract where people feel their interests are being served, we are going to have an explosion. It happened with Brexit, it happened in the 2016 U.S. election. A new social contract must be based on trust, mutual interest and listening to each other, creating value together and negotiating how to distribute value more equitably. Use the knowledge of the workforce by all means, but we can’t have a world of winners and losers.
This article is excerpted and modified from Telefonica and MIT Sloan Leaders Consider Distributed Future
Thomas Kochan is the Co-director, MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research, where he is Professor of Work and Employment Research.