Replaced by robots? A relevant approach to workplace change

To some, increasing uses of robots represent a threat to jobs, families, and life as we know it. To others, they are the salvation of our civilization and the only hope for the future. Between these two polarized extremes, the late Peter Drucker, known as the father of modern management, offers a perspective from the past that may be even more relevant today.

A Harvard Business Review article by Rick Wartzman notes the comments that Drucker made as the debate about the effects of technology raged: “The full picture, as in all technological revolutions, emerges only if both—the better life for those who can adjust themselves and the suffering of those who are pushed out—are seen together and at the same time.”

In The Frontiers of Management, Drucker predicted that the “shrinkage of jobs in the smokestack industries and their conversion to being capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive, …will put severe strains—economic, social, political—on the system.” The solution: education.

“School,” Drucker said, “has traditionally been where you learn; job has been where you work. The line will become increasingly blurred.” Writing in 1993—more than 20 years ago–he was addressing what he called a transformation from the age of capitalism to a “Knowledge Society.”

Employers also have their role, including “active and energetic attempts at retraining for specific new job opportunities,” as Drucker put it. And each employee must step up and be ready to embrace what’s being taught—over and over and over again. “People have to learn how to learn,” Drucker advised. “No one is allowed to consider himself or herself ‘finished’ at any time.”

Organizations that hope to flourish may pay heed to this observation, even ten years after Drucker’s death. W. Edwards Deming’s Fourteen Points for Management emphasize the need for training (point #6) and on instituting “a vigorous program of education and self improvement” (point # 13). We all know cases of workers who are simply laid off when their jobs change; some predict dramatic effects on unemployment as a result of increased use of robots and other technologies:

Both Drucker and Deming would undoubtedly insist that as the tools change, learning must keep up. This does not mean, of course, that employers can assure workers that they will have new jobs in the same company or even the same industry. But managers can help to expand workers’ skill areas with the hope that when new skills and knowledge are required in their industry, a field of newly-trained workers will be available. No one can rest in a smug assurance that a job will go on forever, executed in the same way year after year. Instead, both managers and employees must be educated to possibilities for the future. While Drucker seems to suggest that the responsibility for ongoing learning lies primarily with the individual, Deming insists that organizations have a responsibility to continue to offer enhanced training to their workers. It seems obvious that the two approaches must work hand in hand to inspire continuous learning that can be brought to the job at hand as well as prepare for the career of the future.