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We Need To Build An Economy For Humans, Not Just Robots

Technological advancements are creating whole new industries - how do we ensure these sectors create productive fulfilling work for people?

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Technological advancements are creating whole new industries - how do we ensure these sectors create productive fulfilling work for people?

Opinions

We Need To Build An Economy For Humans, Not Just Robots

Technological advancements are creating whole new industries - how do we ensure these sectors create productive fulfilling work for people?

Share this article

From the European Parliament's decision to award robots 'personhood status' at the start of the year, through to the £17.3 million pledged by the government to support the development of new robotics and artificial intelligence technologies in universities, it is clear that we are in the midst of some fundamental changes to our relationship with AI.

The ‘rise of the robots’ has brought about huge advancements in almost every aspect of society – from our healthcare system to our transport infrastructure. But for some, it is not a fact to be celebrated.

For those in the public sector for example, automation is casting a shadow over the workplace, with the announcement that robotics could replace 250,000 jobs over the next 15 years. To counteract this, some MEPs have suggested the idea of a ‘robot tax’ to ensure companies pay their dues on their entire workforce’s output – not just those with a National Insurance number.

While the robot tax has not exactly been met with universal approval, it raises an interesting point: how else might governments encourage businesses to retain their human workforce in the face of automated alternatives?

Clearly, there are opportunities in these technologies for the economy. In her Digital Strategy announcement, Culture Secretary Karen Bradley said that they will “lead to the creation of industries that do not currently exist – and of which few of us can conceive” – but how can we ensure that these industries create worthwhile, fulfilling jobs for as many people as possible, while remaining competitive in a global economy?

I believe that the answer could lie in our community of small businesses – particularly those selling niche, highly skilled services. Focusing on niche skills that demand a human presence could provide the key to a healthy economy in which humans and automatons coexist.

The great skill divide

The UK is not globally competitive when it comes to low skilled services and is in fact only behind the US when it comes to outsourcing. At the same time, we know that some higher-skilled services, such as doctors making medical diagnoses or lawyers establishing legal precedents, are going to be automated one day.

So, when it comes to finding a niche for the UK, there’s a logical advantage in focusing on those specific skills that demand a human presence.

It’s something that we have shown great potential in, with eight per cent of the £6.2 billion UK consultancy industry already being made up of small consultancies.

It is the bespoke problem solving nature of niche service businesses that gives them fantastic potential as future job-creators. These services require the capacity for trusted relationships that – as yet – we’ve not experienced with robots. Businesses in this category might include creative agencies such as designers and video production companies, or services that require empathy and human understanding such as HR advisors and leadership trainers.

Scaling new heights

When it comes to consultancies, there is a specific challenge to consider; growth. Consultancies sell their time and expertise, making people their greatest asset. A reliable and talented employee in a small agency can make all the difference when it comes to delivering quality work, retaining clients and getting new contracts across the line.

By the very nature of consultancy jobs, particularly those in more unusual sectors, employees are expected to have an incredibly bespoke set of skills. This makes recruiting a challenge as the pool of possible employees is limited. Employers need to develop an ability to spot transferrable skills in candidates or run the risk of missing out on talent.

This is even more important as growth for these types of businesses can be volatile and unpredictable, often requiring skilled team members at short notice. Working with a fairly small portfolio of clients each paying large sums, one client can have a huge impact, requiring new staff at the drop of a hat. The key is being ready to grow when opportunity knocks.

The pinnacle of success

I’ve worked with many consultancies who have successfully scaled up over the years. They’ve adopted a number of approaches to sustainable growth, including upping their new business development efforts, even during apparent periods of plenty to avoid having to do so in desperation when opportunities dry up.

Working with freelancers or outsourcing certain tasks are other common approaches to stabilising growth for small consultancies, but another commonality is that these businesses have made a proactive decision to grow.

Having a growth plan is incredibly important for consultancies hoping to maximise on this new economy, as it’s not just about winning new clients indiscriminately; the wrong kind of business can cost a firm money.

Customer and financial data can help to identify the ideal clients and sweet spots for each firm by examining the kind of company, turnover and industry that will be most profitable to target. At the same time, this exercise will help to identify potential problem clients that could end up being more trouble than they’re worth.

Of course, consultancies can only ever be one part of the answer to the wider employment challenges created by the rise of the robots and AI – but like so many of the UK’s small businesses they are brimming with potential.

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We Need To Build An Economy For Humans, Not Just Robots

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