The mini-supermarket at the bottom of my road is closed for a couple of weeks for refurbishments (this may seem like an incredibly mundane topic with which to start a blog, but bear with me). The signs announcing this closure were only put up a couple of days beforehand, and somewhat surprised I asked the cashier - with whom, like many in my neighborhood, I have a friendly relationship – what was behind the chain. The shop is part of a very large national chain, but has a "local" atmosphere unlike, in my experience, most such establishments. She replied that the shop is being redesigned to include several self-serve tills - and was, of course, unwilling or unable to answer when I inquired if that means job losses amongst the current staff.
An elderly man being served next to me then said something which got me thinking: "It's computers, isn't it? Everything will be run by computers soon, and there'll be nobody left to talk to." In this particular instance, at least in the short term, that gentleman was of course being premature - that shop will still have a complement of human staff, and won't be entirely based around self-serve points of sale (POS) - but there as everywhere else in the country, technology is driving vast change in the retail sector, with ramifications that go far beyond that industry and which have the potential to affect the whole fabric of society.
For the past 60+ years, the standard joke about Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been that it is “the future.” In 1950, Alan Turing questioned whether machines could think like humans…and less than ten years later, Marvin Minsky founded the AI lab at MIT. For decades, people tinkered, pondered and philosophized about robotics. Factories installed automation to remove workers from redundant tasks…but advancements in office settings didn’t progress at the same level. People hypothesized about flying cars, but few could imagine cognitive computing. I think it’s finally safe to say that the future is now. AI and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) are no longer conceptual ideas…they are business strategies that will continue to impact our lives in radical ways.
A recent Forrester study predicts that by 2021, 6% of U.S. jobs will be replaced by robots. While it may not sound like a lot in the grand scheme of things, consider that it represents growth from 250 million in 2016 to 2.9 billion in 2021. Sure…we’ve all dealt with AI and technological advancements already: call centers that put us through a series of (irritating) steps before you can finally talk to a human; travel aggregators that find the best deal across all airlines…ads that stalk you online after one quick search for a new printer…but until recently, it was hard to see how it would really affect the world of sourcing and procurement.
The word “revolution” gets thrown about a fair bit at present (not least by me…) when discussing the new wave of automation technologies which are transforming the way organizations do business. But are we talking about “revolution” or “evolution” – sudden and dramatic, or gradual change? Well, it’s a bit of both: the technology itself is evolving. We can trace, for example, the evolution of IBM Watson back to the Deep Blue chess computer which beat Gary Kasparov back in the mid ‘90s...which can in turn be seen to have evolved from its predecessor Deep Thought...which itself was a successor to ChipTest (developed in the 1980s at Carnegie Mellon University)...and so on, back to Turing and beyond. While there have been revolutionary moments along this path – the transistor, the integrated circuit etc. – it’s clear that this is an evolutionary sequence, at a pace which may seem very far from “gradual” to those who’ve been alive to observe it but which, nevertheless, consists of successive advances built upon what’s gone before.
The build out of the “internet of things” will drive the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours, according to IBM. That means that every time you go to bed for the night, an entirely new amount of information has flooded the world. It wasn’t that long ago that robots were only part of huge factories. Now they have them available for purchase at local retailers for less than $50. Robots are more than mechanical machines…in today’s world, they are incredibly advanced tools that have the ability to automate everything, including driving.
As sourcing professionals, it is necessary that we all understand the new world we are living in, and how it impacts not only our organization, but our daily job. Do you have a knowledgeable understanding of:
How you are going to source these new products?
How you will negotiate contracts for technologies that didn’t exist last month?
How you will incorporate these products into your work?
How contracts will be crafted to protect IP?
Do you have the knowledge, skills and competencies to fully grasp the future that is here and expanding exponentially?
Education is the answer…and there are a few simple things you can do to support your own education:
Make sure you are reading a book a month. That’s an investment of only 15-20 minutes per day. If you don’t know what to read, (I have this problem) ask someone you trust, explore the internet (trusted sites) and determine what the most successful people are reading. Make sure these books are not just about your industry or current role, but about business, innovation, creativity and other areas of focus. By reading a variety of books, you will gather different insights and uncover different views on the changing world.
Teach. When you teach others, you learn. You have knowledge others want and they have insight you need. Learning is a mutual relationship.
Mark Pollack, Vice President, SIG University and Chief Strategy Officer, SIG
At dinner recently, a guest held us all entranced as he described his current work: a post-doc at a prestigious London university, he has been working for nearly two decades in artificial intelligence (AI), specializing in trying to teach computers how to teach other computers. While much of his work is simply too esoteric to explain here (that's my code for "it went right over my head"), what was very obvious to me was the extent to which things have advanced since we first met - as he was just setting out upon his journey in this field - and how rapidly theoretical advances are becoming practical innovations which then, in turn, move out into the mainstream. Problems he and his peers were wrangling with only a few years ago now seem like ancient history, he said, and while "the future is always infinitely far away, tomorrow seems closer than ever."
If any of us at the table had had any doubts before that we're on the verge of tremendous social change as a result of automation and smart technology - and I don't believe anyone did have such doubts (as one would have to have had one's head thoroughly buried in the sand not to be aware of the whirlwind approaching us), they would have been thoroughly dispelled by the end of our companion's passionate and impressive address. But, of course, how to react to the automation revolution is immeasurably more difficult than simply to assert that it's coming...
Last week I had the honor of giving the closing session at SIG’s latest event on my side of the Atlantic: the SIGnature event in London, hosted by Mayer Brown. At that event, Peter Dickinson, global co-lead of Mayer Brown’s Business & Technology Transactions practice (and a great friend of SIG) gave a fantastic presentation in the morning on “Reimagining Sourcing for the Digital Age” where he looking at emerging technologies and services, the benefits and challenges that they provide, and why a new approach to sourcing is required when it comes to operating in this brave new world.
Sourcing and outsourcing lawyers benefit from a very useful – if hard-earned - combination of perspectives, in that they are as deeply immersed as anyone in the minutiae of specific deals while at the same time needing to maintain as broad an understanding as possible of the macro-level trends and developments driving the evolution of the space: it’s impossible to serve a client adequately, let alone superlatively, without knowing what’s happening far beyond the confines of one deal and/or partnership. Peter demonstrated to our London attendees just how potent that mix of perspectives can prove with a fascinating “state of the nation” address examining how the key emergent technologies are driving change in the outsourcing landscape, in how providers are serving their clients (and who’s doing both buying and selling), and in how corporate strategies and behavior are being transformed by an extraordinary complexity of overlapping factors – all illustrated on a micro level by well-chosen examples pulled from the extensive experience of Peter and his team at Mayer Brown.
With so much attention currently focused on the political arena (most obviously, of course, in the USA with the inauguration of President Trump) it’s easy to become carried away in one’s assessments of the extent to which “politics” drives actual change. Of course, there’s no doubting the scale of the significance of the Trump election, or the Brexit vote, or similar “watershed moments” – but the nature of that significance is somewhat less clear, especially when it comes to the impacts on specific aspects of our lives. It’s somewhat comforting (or perhaps not, depending on one’s affiliation) to think that the person nominally in charge of a country is indeed that – it plays to our natural human desire for order, comprehensibility, justice – but in a world as interconnected and complex as this one, is it not a serious error to overstate the ability of a President Trump, a Prime Minister May and others in similar positions around the world truly to steer a course, rather than simply to keep their ships of state upright in the storm?
Look at the sourcing and outsourcing space specifically. In a number of particular areas President Trump could well have a huge impact: a crackdown on immigration and the offshoring of work, changes to NAFTA, the reversal of the ACA and other policies would affect very substantially certain tranches of the space and those working within them. Likewise, in the UK the way Theresa May is approaching the exit from the EU and the Single Market has deep significance for businesses working in and with the United Kingdom for data protection, for accounting and a host of other areas.
They’re in the supermarket, the library and active war zones. They’re on the farm, in schools and even in our own homes. Robots are everywhere. This may sound like the pretense to some futuristic, action-packed Hollywood film but it’s our reality in 2016 and at times it's a somewhat frightening one.
Robots are taking over jobs in nearly every industry imaginable and continue to replace human workers every day. This is one of the biggest fears for those of us who are Millennials. In a world where a bachelor's degree may not get you an entry level job right out of college...or where companies are looking for recent graduates that miraculously have a minimum of 3-5 years experience, the loss of any type of job is terrifying. Really. I understand that jobs that are repetitive and task-oriented in nature, like those in the automotive and textile industries, are most at risk. But there are other "college-level" jobs that are also ripe for the picking, including bank tellers and low-level accountants. Does this mean it's time for us to panic? On the contrary. Other jobs will thrive and will allow our generation a chance to be engaged in our work in a way that hasn't been seen before. If we aren't burdened down by having to do jobs that are more repetitive and even potentially menial, it allows us more time to be innovative and creative.
Much has been written recently about robotics. If you Google it, the most common word you will see in articles about robotics is “hype.” In fairness, it’s generally in the form of a question…it it hype? Is it more than just hype? Is the promise of artificial intelligence finally here? For the past two years Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have become more prominent conversations at SIG Summits…and the word on the street is that these are no longer just futuristic concepts. They are real. Much of what is out there centers on the idea that automation is just a passing IT fad. But I’m not buying it. I’ve looked behind the curtain and I’m drinking the Kool-Aid. (Nothing like mixing a few metaphors.)
Concerns abound that automation will take away jobs, and in an era where we are still feeling the effects of the 2008 recession the threat of job loss is daunting…haunting even. But is that is the most important aspect of robotics? Yes, it could take jobs away but robotics are most easily applied to positions that are repetitive and process-oriented, so the premise is that the people in those jobs can then be redeployed to more strategic roles. Gartner uses the term “automation arbitrage” to describe RPA and in effect, that is just what it is. But there are so many more possibilities with it.