Will knowledge work be the only way to stay employed?
The above question appeared a few days ago on BPM.com prompted by a post that suggested as much. I propose however that the perspectives are rather shortsighted. I do not even see BPM as the employee-eating monster as some seem to think, but simply as a consequence of other much more problematic causes. Anyway, from a worker perspective it is obviously better to have more knowledge and to be better educated. But the danger is that even knowledge work might not be good enough to keep you in the workforce. Just look at the number of unemployed university graduates.
It is not about workers having knowledge or not. In large corporations, employees have often a lot more knowledge than they are allowed to use for their jobs. Initiative is not necessarily a trait that current management concepts favor. It is more important to be compliant and to do what you are being told. And it gets worse when the management is following the BPM illusion. Supposedly, BPM frees people to do more important work but that is simply a ruse. People are not being trained to do more important work, they are being laid off. Oddly enough, Business Process Management (BPM) pundits are continuously trying to remodel, rebrand and rethink BPM with the most ridiculous ideas such as IoT, the Internet of Things. IoT happens mostly outside large businesses and thus BUSINESS Process Management has no relevance whatsoever. BPM won’t do anything to handle millions of sensor devices through simplistic process logic. Maybe some IoT analytics will provide input to a BPM system but IF, then the related human interaction will be more like ACM than process flows.
And in fact, most employment opportunities have little to do with knowledge. It is about money. People need more money to live than the businesses are able to pay. But it is not longer the greedy, capitalist fat cats that can be held responsible. Now it is governments and unions that are responsible. Yes, human work elements are being automated also outside manufacturing but not because it increases quality. Mostly because you can stop and reprogram a robot, but you can’t fire an employee. A simple historic fact of economic change.
BPM is however used for three reasons:
- managers don’t get that only employees who enjoy work increase customer service quality;
- labor laws and employment regulation that are meant to protect the workforce keeps them from being hired (see the temp industry); and
- the profit and share price motive of public companies.
BPM is an inhumane tool that is used to fufill the unethical requirements of all three. While BPM has advanced with ideas and means that go beyond rigid flowcharts (i.e. ACM) the above motivation and comparison to manufacturing remains rampant. BPM is the brainchild of naive interventionists who live in the illusion that things can be improved in human interaction through more control. But BPM will obviously do nothing to increase employment, or improve businesses, working conditions, customer service and human lives.
In this and many other discussions. the biggest issue of BPM at large (methodology, software and practice) remains its false analogy of manufacturing and customer service. The industrial age started when people were used as robots in assembly lines in manufacturing. It enabled scaling beyond the ability and skill of a single craftsman. The industrial age will end when all of that work will be done by robots. There will be a social impact but someone will need to design and build those robots that will execute work designed by people who know a lot more about how to design a product than any skilled craftsman in the past.
The information age started when humans were able to use computers to perform otherwise simple mathematical tasks at scale. What before needed 20 accountants, now just needed one and a programmer. While someone will need to design, code and maintain those applications there is the danger that the computing power is used beyond automation. The information age will end when all non-manufacturing work will be done by computers and they are used to control and manipulate everyone. It will however not end nicely but in upheaval, economic downturns and in the worst case wars.
Factory automation is not comparable to service automation through processes, because human interaction is not controllable through data mining, flow diagrams and decision trees. That is wrong in principle and the consequences on society and economy are very different. The challenges of the information age are also not comparable to the ones of the industrial age. The industrial age paid for itself and the loss of labor income was not a huge economic factor, partly as it happened gradually. The information age is however only affordable because most of its products are being built in countries with a labor force living at a substantially lower standard of life. That part of the change has already taken place.
A major issue will be education.
The workforce that was educated to perform simple manufacturing labor had to be retrained. And the young obviously don’t plan to work in a factory any longer. We are seeing a substantial increase in non-manufacturing jobs such as craftsmen and social or health services. The downturn of the farming industry is also not due to automation or process management. It is due to EU government meddling and the ability for companies such as Monsanto to patent gene sequences. EU farm subsidies kill the markets in Africa as they swamp them with low-quality EU rubbish. Monsanto kills farming in the Americas through patent litigation. Not greedy executives, BPM or automation but just really bad politics. While it does seem to keep farming jobs alive in Europe, the produce quality is truly appaling and doomed in the long run.
But there are other trends than to simply automate the hell out of everything. Those who are willing to deliver quality can do really well and it is not a step backwards. Mobile Cloud applications such as UBER create new work opportunities beyond the strictly regulated service industries. The Internet of Things will bring even more opportunities due to people empowerment but NOTHING in this arena has to do with what BPM has done, can do, will do or should do! It mirrors a new form of empowerment through technology that I have been proposing for large businesses since a long time. I have often named the Apple Appstore being such an empowering infrastructure. It IS ALREADY HAPPENING outside the businesses. Yes, these tools offer some well designed core processes to ensure smooth collaboration, but they do usually not restrict how the worker utilizes his skill. Most of all they offer a rating scheme that allows people to rate the quality of each service provider. Something that is for example strictly forbidden by unions for its union members in most countries. Add BPM and that together: You are being told what to do and no one cares if you do it well.
The problem is not technology and its opportunity for automation. BPM is just a consequence of poor management and bad government politics. The culprits are the people in government, the reality-disconnected business executives, and a financial and economic structure designed to keep both in place. I find it more than hypocritical to tell the corporate workforce: „We are gong to automate as much as possible everything that you could do and unless you find something to do that we can’t automate, you are out of a job.“