In some respects computers have been disappointing. Whilst the internet, smartphones and spreadsheets have had huge impacts on many peoples lives and have made billionaires out of many entrepreneurs the impact has been small.
Data from The Economist and the FT shows this clearly. Since 1970 the growth rate of the US and many of the developed nations has slowed significantly which seems strange given the huge changes that advances in computers and technology have brought.
Put simply, if computers, and technology more broadly, were having a large impact on national productivity, one would have expected faster economic growth
This isn’t the case. One explanation is that whilst technology is responsible for some productivity growth broadly most people do most jobs in a similar way that they did in 1950 or even 1900.
The Steam Engine and the Electric Light
Let us step back a bit further in time for a minute and consider two key inventions: the steam engine and electricity. James Watt patented the steam engine in 1781 but it was only in 1850 that the UK started to the massive growth in productivity that is seen as the start of the industrial revolution. Similarly whilst Edison got his patent for the electric light in 1880 it was only in the 1930’s that the US and UK created national grids and offered cheap, universal and reliable electrical power to their entire populations.
Both of these inventions took approximately half a century of improvement and massive innovation before they had a real impact on the economy. My argument is that the impact of technology has been similar to that of the steam engine and electricity in these gestation periods.
There are, I think, three aspects to consider when looking at technological change. Ubiquity, substitution, and enhancement.
Ubiquity, Substitution and Enhancement
By the start of the industrial revolution steam engines were ubiquitous, just as technology is today. Without ubiquity there simply are not enough people spending enough of their lives thinking about how to use the technology to make money. There needs to be a critical mass to generate the innovations and improvements that create the ‘killer apps’.
For much of an innovation’s early life it is a substitute for another way of doing things. The classic expression of this is the 10hp rating of Watts first steam engine. One steam engine substituted for the power of 10 horses. Or to use a more modern example. One ENIAC substituted for the power of 9,000 computers (mostly women) at Bletchley Park.
But for it to break through to make a massive change in society it must go significantly beyond substitution to enhance productivity. The steam engines and its successors have gone unimaginably far beyond the limits of what could be provided by any number of horses. The same is true for electricity and it’s perceived ‘killer app’ the electric chair.
Most People – Including You – are Glorified Clerks
So where does this leave us with computers and technology now?
One test is for change is the impact on people’s lives. At it’s simplest the steam engine meant that you didn’t have to work as a farmer but could find more rewarding work in the cities. Electricity meant that you had 24 hours of daylight each day.
Computers will change the world by removing clerking. Clerking the administrative duties that need to be done in order to enable the real work to be undertaken. One study showed sales reps only spending 22% of their work week on actually selling but almost 65% of their time on administrative tasks.
These tasks exists across almost every job and in almost all cases the educational, experiential and skill requirements to complete them are far below the person’s pay grade. Using the figures from above it is as you you are paying a salesman $100,000 but 65% of it could be done by someone on a salary of $20,000. That’s $52,000 of unnecessary expense.
And there’s No Escape
But, as is well known, these tasks require personal involvement. They can’t be done by someone else. Far less can they be done by a computer. Many of the activities require detailed background knowledge of the job and the tasks undertaken as well as an organisations SOP and procedures. It often takes months to onboard a new starter to being fully productive for just this reason – even if they are technically capable of the role
And this is one of the fundamental reasons why technology has not impacted productivity growth.
As an aside, one of the other reasons is that whilst some professions have improved productivity massively – think of the 20,000 Google engineers at Mountain View – others have barely changed; for example the 20,000 cleaners in Birmingham and every other city in the world. The impacts of the Googlers is swamped.
Programmatic Automation is Fragile
So we are at a cusp now. Companies such as Salesforce and Nintex have products that enable some of the admin work to be automated. However it is slow, it is expensive and it is fragile. If the business changes, if the way that you work changes many of these laboriously code workflows (and it is laborious even if it is point and click) have to be rewritten as they are now a cost rather than a benefit to your productivity. They make an organisation more efficient at the cost of sclerosis; a difficult tradeoff in a world where companies must be increasingly agile.
Machine Learning will be as Ubiquitous as Sellotape
The answer is going to be in how we apply machine learning and all the associated tools of artificial intelligence, deep learning, big data etc etc. For now these are being applied to data on a massive scale – think Hadoop – to handle things that are pretty trivial to economic productivity – information search and social popularity.
Where we will see a genuine revolution is when they can be applied simply and easily by individuals and small companies, with no technical skills, on many small unstructured data sets.
How can we redesign and apply these tools so that individuals can take them and apply them to their own jobs. Not all jobs are office jobs but all require administrative tasks that add little value to the individual (but great coordination and control value). How do you take that 65% of time wasted on administrative tasks and start automating it, taking it all away?
There is not yet a solution. Nor will there be one for decades; but we can now start working at the problem at the edges. There is no reason why filling out expense forms should be anything more involved than taking photos of receipts; maybe not even that.
Managing and responding to email, arranging meetings, planning a day or a trip, keeping your boss informed, coaching new staff, responding to customers, reception duties, updating records and making notes. None of these things – and thousands more – should we really need to do
And in the decades to come we won’t
I see a world where businesses and individuals buy automation software. It plugs in to their lives, watches, learns and slowly takes the load away.
Dynamic Creation and Destruction of Automation Workflows
We see a world where business automation dynamically creates and destroys workflows in response to the way that people work within a culture. A world where based on your own writing style, your customer base, their historical engagement behaviour across multiple channels and the best performers within your organisation, the software suggests the emails that you write to your customers. Dynamically. Real time. Always improving.