Promissory Notes

The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment – Warren Bennis

My good friend, David D’Souza (Defence Against the Dark Arts master at the CIPD or some such), published a post today posing 50 questions on the future of work. Here, for what it’s worth, are my responses.

1.       What roles can’t be automated?

In time I think there will be very few roles that can’t but that leads me neatly on to…

2.       What roles shouldn’t be automated?

…the Ian Malcom conundrum. Just because we can it doesn’t follow that we should. AI that kills? The law of unintended consequences. Some might argue that AI being infallibly non-human means that every eventuality will be forseeable. But let’s not forget it’ll be humans who design AI.

3.       Financial markets, left to their own devices, aren’t good at accommodating a greater social purpose – do we need to take more of an interventionist stance to ensure greater societal benefit?

Read ‘Flash Boys’ by Michael Lewis and you’ll find it hard to argue that we don’t need altruistic human intervention in markets. And time delays to provide a calming effect.

4.       At what point do we stop running out of corporate scandals? How can we get more proactive at asking difficult questions of organisations as employees and consumers?

We won’t unless we make it impossible to get rich or pursue power through corporations. As for asking difficult questions? The entire system is founded on keeping us consuming. The simple answer? To make folk really sit up and take notice? Stop shopping.

5.       Does an organisation with a social purpose have an advantage or a limitation?

In a market based on competition it is a limitation. We could make social purpose pay by spending our money there and not with companies who offer us beautiful things at the expense of others it’s hard for us to see.

6.       What work might be most impacted by changes in international border policy or digitisation making borders redundant?

Politics, diplomacy and jurisdictional legal services.

7.       Who is accountable for my wellbeing?

You. But there is help available to you. The visibility of, and access to, that help is another matter entirely. Unless you work for someone who has you digging rare metals out of the Earth to fulfill demand for the latest iThing. Then your employer should most definitely be looking out for you. But probably isn’t.

8.       If my employer is responsible for making sure I’m not under undue stress – then am I responsible for managing my diet to ensure I’m delivering peak performance?

I think you are responsible for your performance unless someone is stopping you. How that is achieved is a matter for you. As long as it’s legal.

9.       Can you automate creativity – and if so will we still only feel something is creative if it is produced by a human?

Ever seen a be-dewed spider’s web? 

10.   How do we balance the concepts of diversity with the drive for cultural fit?

We will never get there. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Or trying to catch cliques and cabals before they form.

11.   Is the Gen X,Y,Z & millennial terminology helpful for understanding or lazy stereotyping?

It’s helps statisticians who like trends, media who like clickbait and politicians who like order where none exists. Apart from that, it’s diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks.

12.   What’s the point of work? To get happiness? Make a difference? Recognition? Will the point of work change and how might it do so?

I’m pulling “it depends” out here. So much is subjective. Is there anything wrong with someone just doing it to get the money to do the things they really love, for example? To bastardise a quote: “If you can’t do what you love, love what you do or just take the money and run, whatevs. ” I think it’s likely we will spend more time in stewardship of our communities and of the environment.

13.   How do we step away from a 9-5 working week construct together?

By extending the flexibility franchise to all roles everywhere. Even for panel beaters in Solihull or care home assistants in Rhyl. Not just for ‘knowledge’ workers in artisanal coffee shops.

14.   How much longer will income and wage inequality be tolerated by those on the wrong side of the stats?

When living in relative poverty in the developed world is the same as living in actual poverty in the slums of Diepsloot.

15.   How many more years of casual sexism in workplaces do we have before that dies a death?

I don’t think it’ll die a death. It needs to be brutally excised. No hiding places to find, no quarter given. I have a 10 year-old daughter.

16.   If whole chunks of your life are viewable on the internet will we become more tolerating of mistakes at work?

Provided that these mistakes do not come at the expense of other people or are held against us. We don’t have a great track record of tolerance though. Some people can’t even tolerate other people’s choice of fictional omnipotent deity. 

17.   The image of everyone working on the beach is an attractive one – but what does this mean for introverts or people with mobility issues?

This is one area where technological advance might extend choice and accessibility. Robotic exoskeletons could get people with mobility challenges on to the beach with ease and comfort. WiFi-enabled, lightweight portable geodesic domes might afford introverts a place apart in the great outdoors.

18.   Do I own my data or am I just a data point?

You own the data you choose to keep. Read the small print.

19.   You can already automate ‘congratulations’ messages on Linkedin. How much effort can you remove from a gesture before it becomes meaningless?

The fact that we now get so many automated thumbs up has actually served to highlight the value when someone really does make an effort. That’s probably a good thing.

20.   If I can outsource work cheaply to another country is that simply the free market in action (and an easy decision) or should I care more about the wellbeing of people I already employ?

It is the free market in action. You should care about the wellbeing of people you work with because that’s part of what makes you human. How you square the two in your conscience is your problem.

21.   If work is to become more transient (the gig economy) then who takes responsibility for long term capability building of people? If I’m only with an organisation for 6 months then why would they invest in me?

Well, this presupposes that work is going to be more transient. Why? Who has decided this. We are being told “it’s what Millenials expect”. But that’s what they’re being fed. We don’t have to accept this vision of the near future.

22.   The more we understand about the mind the easier it is to manipulate it. How do we build in ethical safeguards in organisations?

By drawing the line. Hard and clear. And backing it with highly punitive legislation, free from loopholes. And then prosecuting assiduously.

23.   How much do we really know about the organisations that curate the world’s information and present it back to you and how much do you need to know?

We suspect their motives. Their motives need rigorous examination if we’re buying their version of our collective future. Will they bear scrutiny? I have my doubts. There’s humans involved after all.

24.   Is happiness a legitimate business and economic outcome?


25.   What is the best way for groups to create influence and make a difference in a digital age?

By being bigger and more vocal and creating unstoppable momentum around credible alternatives.

26.   Why do organisational IT solutions still tend to be more expensive yet less useful than consumer solutions?

Vendors over-promise. Emptors don’t do enough caveating. Organisations think they’re in a better state to receive the new solution than they really are. The data is always in a mess. Systems aren’t integrated. Solutions never quite integrate properly either. People sometimes have more money than sense. Leadership wants to retain control. Vanity. Stupidity. Laziness. How long have we got?

27.   Does the age of automation mean that a universal basic payment to all is required?

UBI is not the answer.  It’s an answer. But it can’t work in isolation. Executive pay caps? Corporate profit caps? Permanently closing tax loopholes and not creating any more? These and other instruments in concert.

28.   When we do save time where does it go? For all the automation and efficiency I don’t hear many people saying they have more time to relax.

We don’t save any time. All those labour saving devices so beloved of the 1950s madmen only increased the amount of work done around the home. Efficiency apps are the 21st century equivalent. Time is one of the most precious commodities we have. You just have to cancel a Friday afternoon meeting to see just how precious.

29.   What aspects of our behaviour is it appropriate to legislate for? Is restricting access to company communications after hours unnecessarily interfering or saving us from ourselves?

I think we legislate where the balance of power is skewed away from the individual. That’s the case in a lot of organisations. People are afraid to switch off or to not reply. There’s nothing wrong with legislation that is written so well that it’s not open to abuse.

30.   Will you ever want a consoling hug from a robot?

If I’d only ever known warmth and kindness from robots, then maybe. 

31.   Why are so many organisations already designed and led as though the workers are robots?

Because we have societies by and large founded on the notion of consumption. Employees are just units of production. There merely to feed the inexhaustible maw of the beast.

32.   What does not having to leave your home to work, socialise or shop do to fitness levels over time?


33.   What are the chances the world left by this generation will be better than the one left to us?

50/50. Let’s see who’s in the White House come November.

34.   Do children entering school need to read or write – or will those be surplus skills by the team they leave school?

There’s a world of difference in needing to do these things and wanting to do them. On paper (pun very much intended) there’s no real reason to persist in print versions of anything. But you can’t read an eBook by candlelight in the bunker when the power’s gone out and the radioactive storm is howling outside.

35.   What are the issues that we are sleepwalking towards now that we will regret not taking action on sooner? (thanks to Siobhan Sheridan at the NSPCC for this)

Climate change, migration, food and energy security, Donald Trump, an NHS that Nye Bevan would still recognise, loneliness, empathy.

36.   What are the opportunities that we will regret taking?

I’m struggling to think of any opportunities we really have taken despite so much evidence that doing so would have meant we’d already be in a better place.

37.   How much of our enhanced technical capability will be channeled into solving societal problems and how much into increasing profits?

Just about as much as we allow.

38.   How do you get a mortgage in the ‘Gig Economy’?

Why do there still have to be mortgages? This is the future. Alternatives are available.

39.   Does the Sharing Economy really share – or does it just collect a smaller margin from a larger volume of workers that are dependent? If we called it the Snaring Economy would it be such a popular concept?

I’m not sure many people out there are even aware of the sharing economy. It has a cosy name and like all things market-driven with a cosy name it’s anything but. 

40.   When Prof Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and others describe AI as a potentially extinction level threat why do people think they are overstating it? When did we start thinking we had a better grasp on big issues than Stephen Hawking?

My guess is that most people have only the vaguest grasp of who they are. Certainly the case with Musk, as a quick call to my Mum bears witness. I don’t think the general public think they do have even the slightest grasp on these issues. They simply aren’t given the in depth airtime in the kinds of media that the majority of people consume for them to develop any depth of insight.

41.   How confident are you really that the Financial Services industry is now running as it should – and what are the knock on risks given the fragility of the world economy?

Not at all. There have been no consequences of significance for the people involved in the last crisis. No reason to change. Knock on risks? Same as it ever was. The least able to bear the burden will bear the burden.

42.   How can we help design roles and organisations that make the most of people?

Start with what people can do. Find others with complementary skills. Build a business round that. Not vice versa.

43.   What are the implications of the current level of gender imbalance within the tech sector over the next decade?

Dick pics will still be a thing.

44.   Much of the technology we utilise on a day to day basis would struggle to meet most people’s definition of an ethical supply chain. When do we start making different purchasing decisions?

When we stop mistaking hobbies for values.

45.   What are the best sources of information on the changing world of work and how can we ensure the independent voices are heard when organisations with the biggest budgets will be looking to exploit this space?

Unpaid bloggers who challenge, crunch numbers, call bullshit; not-for-profits; voluntary bodies; anyone who annoys Rupert Murdoch. Diversify conference panels. Open the door to the contrarians. Use social media to open dialogue. Mean it. Keep at it.

46.   People frequently talk about wanting more equality and higher living standards for others – yet how many people would give up, for instance, 25% of their salary in order to improve the living standards of others?

Not enough (and I’m a hypocrite too) but I do think we can pull people up with us instead of asking people to take a step back down.

47.   How will we filter content effectively in the future and how open to abuse is that filtering process?

By showing more discernment as to what we allow in and then examining what is left critically. If it’s electronic and open to abuse we can sure as hell develop electronic counter measures.

48.   How do the business role models of the future act?

With integrity and humility. Quietly and modestly.

49.   People cry when their pets die. What will be the first piece of technology that you cry over the loss of?

The off button.

50.   If you had one contribution to make to making things just a little better over the next decade what would it be? 

Go out and make people giggle every day.

Picture credit: The inimitable Gary Larson

One comment

  1. Kenny Temowo · · Reply

    Brilliant. Thank you.

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