The topic of digitalisation and automation can be scary, as it evokes fear among employees who are worried that they will be replaced by robots. In fact, it is one of the most common questions received by Frances Valintine, founder of Tech Futures Lab in New Zealand.
“A lot of research has been done on this topic. What we have found to date is that there are actually more job vacancies today and more fields that are paying more than in the past. Jobs are not being fully automated; it’s just tasks within jobs,” Valintine tells Digital Edge. She recently spoke at the World Islamic Economic Forum Foundation’s thinkTALK event on reinforcing digital businesses.
“So, if 20% to 30% of your job is automated, what can you do with the additional time differently? What can you move into?” The answer is education, says Valintine.
People have to be ready to upskill themselves and learn new skills, which is easier to do now owing to the availability of educational materials online. During the pandemic, online learning platforms such as Coursera and universities, including Harvard University, offered some of their online courses for free.
“You can study courses by the best universities in the world online, and you can learn from experts online for free or at a low cost. The democratisation of education happened because of Covid-19. That means we don’t have to think about how we can learn new things. It’s a matter of finding time,” says Valintine.
“I think the prioritisation of learning is now becoming more front and centre. People are starting to ask, ‘What if I don’t have a job in this particular sector anymore? How do I learn new skills?’”
It is also worth thinking about how people can transition past the industrial age, when most people were tied down doing physical work or processes, Valintine observes. When more of these processes are automated, could this mean people will have more free time to do different things? What kind of skills are required to make that happen?
“[Back then] we had very little free time to do things that are naturally human, like being creative, innovating and collaborating,” she says, adding that educational institutions should take this into account and equip students with skills that are relevant for the future.
The future of businesses
The fear of digitalisation and automation, however, should not stop business owners from transforming their business. Otherwise, they might find themselves becoming irrelevant.
This need became particularly obvious during the pandemic, when lockdowns put businesses that did not have digital platforms in a difficult spot. Valintine has been helping small businesses in New Zealand digitalise in the past few months, with assistance from the government.
“I think it comes across very clearly that small business owners are often very busy. They are doing everything themselves and do not have a team to rely on. By the end of the day, they can’t imagine learning [new skills]. It feels too out of reach,” says Valintine.
“Maybe they need to bring someone in to cover [their responsibilities] in the day so they can learn what they need to know to get their business back on track. The businesses that are closing down around the world are typically those that haven’t digitalised.”
Another common hurdle faced by these business owners is a fear of failure, she adds. “They often think it’s going to cost a lot of money and they’re not going to get any returns … I think people don’t understand how easily you can open a digital channel to market [your products].”
So, what should the companies do to transform themselves? Valintine suggests that they move away from paper-based systems and use available cloud or business automation tools, for instance. They could also use online collaborative tools such as Google’s G Suite, so documents are available online and can be shared easily.
“Many cloud-based services run on the software-as-a-service model, so you pay a monthly fee, like you do for Netflix. You are not paying for an expensive capital outlay and you can cancel whenever you want … When businesses understand this, they will quickly realise that this is a much easier way to run a business,” says Valintine.
Of course, the pandemic also highlighted the digital divide globally between the haves and have-nots. “Not everyone has devices or reliable internet connectivity. But now, there is so much emphasis on access and equity around digitalisation that the government [of New Zealand] found the money and resources to address this problem,” she says.
“If there is any silver lining to Covid-19, it is that we are now looking at which communities have been deeply affected by the lack of digitalisation because of the inequality that has been growing over the last five years.”