The secret price of automation that every entrepreneur should know

Text and Illustration by Susanne Gold

Today, workers bring to the workplace a willingness to be lifelong learners. Never-ending training and being a student forever, that’s the price careerists pay today.

Not every new tool and every new technology can be learned during working hours. This means that working time is increasingly extending into free time. The separation of free time and working time is increasingly dissolving and is reinforced by working in a home office. 

The classic career path – i.e., phases such as apprentice, journeyman and master through to retirement – has had its day. Today, people move through a mosaic of careers because the shelf life of the knowledge they have acquired has become comparatively short.

Workers are becoming perpetual students through digital transformation

Continuing education in a constantly and rapidly changing work environment demands a lot from people. The agenda includes constantly letting go of the old and the familiar, and constantly getting involved in new and unknown knowledge and techniques. Phases of routine activities hardly exist anymore. Automation has not only arrived in the factories, but has already reached deep into knowledge work and even journalism and art, as the latest innovations in artificial intelligence have made clear to us. 

Today, the willingness to learn and transform is one of the most important competencies in all professional fields. Employees bring their entire personality, creativity and innovative strength to their companies.   

What price do companies pay for their employees creativity, innovative strength, and willingness to adapt, with the help of which they want to defy the omnipresent threat of disruptive markets?

A high salary and status are not enough in a working world in which mindfulness and personal development are becoming increasingly important. Talent can no longer be lured with this. The currency that companies pay is difficult to name in monetary terms; it is the end of interchangeability. 

Until now, the interchangeability of human labor and its skills was fundamental. The substitutability of professions and activities was part of the survival principle of large institutions. Workers trained in a particular field could also be deployed in other fields without losing their qualifications or skills. In this way, companies were able to respond in a flexible and adaptable manner. The interchangeability of employees was thus an important factor in terms of the flexibility and adaptability of companies and contributed to their continued existence. 

In today’s working world, in which employees must not be afraid of new knowledge, constant self-reflection and self-knowledge the opportunities to replace single members of the staff are dwindling at the same time. There will hardly be any interchangeable positions and skills in the companies of tomorrow. If there are, they will also be automated, in line with the dictates of continuous efficiency enhancement. 

Employees as unique specimens 

Everything and anything, against the backdrop of rapidly changing disruptive markets and the threat of competition, is a challenge that needs to be mastered. Mistakes have meaning, they serve by allowing us to learn from them.  Today, the learning and failure of the workforce shapes the roles of the company. No two resumes are the same anymore, no function remains replaceable or interchangeable in this way.

Unchanging activities, in the factory but also in the knowledge professions of the offices, will be automated. In the future, the digital companion, the artificial intelligence colleague, will be the only employee who remains interchangeable. 

Under the term resilience, human colleagues are required to be flexible and have support within themselves. Many employers are not even aware that they will pay an unknown bill for this

It is true that these companies are becoming more efficient and more resilient to the disruptive movements of the markets in parallel to the individual skills of their employees. But they also become more tied to their employees, more dependent on the individual expertise within their company. 

Dependence is no longer a one-way street

Let’s take a look, by way of illustration, at a large community: the Jesuit Order.

Jesuits are to change the location of their work in regular cycles. The reasoning behind this is that every Jesuit should continually practice letting go in order to remain connected exclusively to himself and to God. To do this, he regularly leaves behind all worldly ties and lives a life of wandering, letting go and constant upheavals.

But the changeability of the individual is only half the truth. It is also part of the survival strategy of large religious associations that their members remain interchangeable. Dependence on individual members is a potential threat to their existence. Consequently, regularly sending fellow believers to another place always serves to secure the existence of large organizations themselves.

If all replaceable positions in large economic organizations are automated today, the non-replaceability of the remaining creative workers is the price of this increase in efficiency. 

Until now, companies could not and were not allowed to become dependent on individuals, but with the progressive automation of entire professions and activities that serve the performance principle of higher-further-faster and the maximization of profits, corporations will pay the price of dependence. 

Old power relations are falling

Tomorrow’s workers will choose who they are and what they do, and no one else will. They will take the scepter – not only for the time and place of their work, but also for the role they choose. The shortage of skilled workers in the Western world may be understood here as a foretaste of what is to follow. 

In the world of tomorrow’s work, entrepreneurs are also entering uncharted territory. Their authority and power are crumbling and they themselves are faced with the learning task of redefining leadership and throwing old strategies overboard. They themselves have to find new and different ways of resilience. They, too, need to let go and renew themselves while automating their routine work. 

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