Technology Is No Threat If You Are a Learner

Some of you are old enough to remember the lines from a popular Bob Dylan song from 1964, “The Times They Are A-Changin.” He was prescient beyond what even he could have imagined. Not only are times changing, but they are changing at a rate faster than anybody would have predicted in Dylan’s time. Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis, futurists among other things, show that within the past 20 years, computing power has increased at an exponential rate. The result is that it has facilitated the same kind of growth in a large number of businesses and occupations.

This rate of change will catch many large companies by surprise. At Singularity University, brain child of Kurzweil and Diamandis, they predict that 200 of the Fortune 500 companies will go out of business in the next 10 years. Will yours be one of them? This will not be because of bad management, customer service or quality of the product. It will be because the product or service will become obsolete.

Will the Google car make truck drivers obsolete? If driverless cars are only a couple of years away, can a driverless truck be far behind? Companies are finding it difficult to hire drivers, and a driverless truck can deliver goods in a safe, reliable and probably less costly way. Food production is undergoing rapid change also. Chicken and steak made in a lab that looks the same and tastes the same as the real stuff is only a few years away. What will this do to the poultry or cattle industry? Plant-based foods will be grown in vertical farms using a fraction of the space of traditional farms and with yields estimated to be 10 to 50 times current ones. What will that do to the farm equipment manufacturers’ business? Some pieces of farm equipment that can cost $400,000 to $500,000 will no longer be needed. Will we soon be able to print ourselves a meal with a 3-D printer? Don’t laugh. Will you soon be able to go to a restaurant, give the waiter (probably a robot) a bio printout from sensors that monitor your blood, etc., and have a customized meal created for you that includes all the vitamins and nutrients that you need? Just a few years away.

If you think because you don’t work in a factory, on a farm or drive a truck that you won’t be affected, think again. If you are in a job where creativity and originality is the output and think that is safe from advances in technology, think again. Original music has been composed by computers for some time now and will only get better. Movies are already highly computerized. Will actors and actresses be replaced by computer animation or robots? The projection is that robots that will be indistinguishable from humans are only a decade or so away. What will happen to the acting occupation? Stand-up comedians? The “Tonight Show”? What jobs will remain? Certainly robots will be able to do all the dangerous jobs. Heavy lifting is already a thing of the past. If your company still has jobs that require humans to do heavy lifting, you may well be already on an extinction path. Accidents in the future will still be costly but no one will be killed or injured. All we will need is to replace the robot. But wait, as seen in the movies, the robot may heal itself. What then will happen to the safety profession?

We are beginning to get our customers to look down the not-too-distant road to see what the future holds for their business. Not just at what technology will replace employees but what technology will replace their product or service. Unfortunately, not all of them are taking that look and many will be caught by surprise. And because of the nature of exponential growth, when they recognize that something has to change, it will be too late.

With exponential growth, the early stages tend to be slow, with a really fast acceleration toward the end. This has a way of sneaking up on people. A typical example of exponential growth is a 100-acre pond that has lily pads growing on it and 1 percent of the pond is covered. Assume that the lilies double every week. If the pond is half-full on June 1 when will the pond be covered? Answer: June 8. It is unfortunate that when some leaders recognize a threat to their business, it will be too late to change it.

Although technology seems to be a threat to employment and it will hit some sectors sooner than others, those organizations that survive will be the ones that make friends with change as change brings new opportunities. Everyone will need to participate in innovation and creativity since quick change may be required, and it cannot be left to just a select few. How quickly employees can be trained to use the new equipment and processes will be a key to survival. There is a saying in Silicon Valley that if you have an idea for a new product when you arrive a work, it can be on the customer’s retail shelf that afternoon.

For most companies this presents a serious problem. They are still using antiquated methods of skill training that haven’t changed in more than 500 years. Although we have been able to survive on those methods for years, the demands of today are such that he who hesitates has lost. I heard of a start-up company in California that had millions of dollars of venture capital and a month before they were ready to launch a company from Florida came out with a methodology that made what they were doing obsolete.

The way we train produces highly variable outcomes at great expense and time. Some students fail and some don’t learn in the classroom but can learn with considerable on-the-job (OJT) training. Most training consists of various forms of telling people what to do and telling them how to do it — reading, listening and showing. Research by Joyce and Showers (1995) shows that this alone is very ineffective in transferring the knowledge and skill to work situations (they trained classroom teachers to apply new techniques to the classroom). None of their teachers used the new skills in the classroom.

In the future, changes will be such that before learning a new technique, another one will take its place. Employees will be in a constant state of training. If training does not bring employees to a level of fluency, it will not only be useless but will have effects on the cost of production, quality, etc., and extensive OJT will mean that before an employee can become fluent at a task, learning a new one will be required. In such a company, most employees will be only half-trained at any given time.

There are technologies that can train people to the level of fluency in a fraction of the time of traditional training. Traditional training includes the use of computers in the training, but in most cases they are fancy page-turners, with a little enhanced content. In addition, the organizations must be required to understand and use positive reinforcement as a primary driver in the culture. Most managers don’t realize that positive reinforcement is an exponential technology. When used efficiently, it produces rapid learning and high retention. When you have a positive reinforcement culture, employees look forward to change since learning new things always increases the opportunities for reinforcement. In the future, employees who are inquisitive and love to learn new things will be the ones with the most job security. Eric Hoffer expressed my advice for the future perfectly in the following quote, “In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.