by Chris Moriarty, Director of Insight and Engagement, IWFM
It has been estimated by McKinsey that about half of the activities people are paid to do today have the potential to be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology.
Opening his talk to the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management Conference (IWFM) earlier this year, tech strategist Antony Slumbers suggested it was inevitable that anything structured, repeatable or predictable will eventually be automated. Slumbers was speaking barely a year after the IWFM published a report, Embracing Technology to Move FM Forward, where we asked facilities practitioners to assess what impact emerging technologies will have on their profession in the coming decade.
In the world according to McKinsey and Slumbers, the results were a bit of a worry. Only when it came to the most familiar tech tools, or those already in their operating sphere, could our respondents foresee their playing a significant part in the future. Technologies such as building management systems, building information modelling, computer aided facilities management and integrated workplace management systems were ranked highest by over half of respondents, with a nod to people analytics and cloud computing.
Outside that list were big data, machine learning, automated vehicles, and even robotics. Less than a year before we published our report, Harvard researchers had described AI, specifically machine learning, as the most important general-purpose technology of our time.
We also asked facilities professionals to rank four possible tech futures in order of their likeliness to occur. Most favoured an incremental digital upgrade (broadly the same as now but with more technology), with some suggesting more radical change through a digital reinvention (a move to data science and analytics). In third place was an incremental digital downgrade (marginalisation and deskilling) and the least likely of all was the radically negative digital displacement (facilities management ceasing to exist).
If humans are hardwired for optimism, this pattern is typical: every entity prefers to imagine a positive future for itself, rather than entertain the idea of extinction, right?
However, Slumbers believes this will have a massive impact, and not necessarily in the way we expect. Artificial intelligence has vast capabilities – of perception, communication, knowledge, reasoning, planning, predicting – and great segments of the work which workplace and facilities professionals do in their roles are perfect for it. But what is absent from all this, he says, and the reason work is changing, is because of one thing: creation. Computers are rubbish at creation and humans are very good at it.
So, the change we will see, he argues, is between old work (structured, repeatable, predictable) and new work (design, imagination, inspiration, empathy, social intelligence).
The future-proof workplace must be designed for this new work: one which fosters skills for collaboration, interaction, learning and engaging – human work, in other words.
The trick to riding the technology wave, rather than reacting to it, will be changing the workplace mindset from one which sees technology as helping to do a job (such as managing a building) to redefining the job as one which helps everyone else do theirs (such as enabling communities). The move towards a more service-focused mentality is not new, but it presents a new opportunity for this relatively young profession, allowing it to begin to show, in real terms, how it can contribute to organisational performance. Technology can be a key driver of that – it’s already profoundly changing our private lives and has begun to shape our ways of working.
Technology presents amazing opportunities, but the very best can only come from those opportunities if, instead of focusing on what we do, we pay more attention to the why.
If facilities professionals could begin to reimagine their roles in terms of what technology could do to enhance the workplace experience, they would not only consider tools that support the built environment, but also those that might radically alter the workplace experience beyond the next decade.
Our new collaboration with Microsoft, connecting workplaces, will explore a shared vision of the role of technology in high-performing workplaces. Building on the challenges identified in our initial research, we aim to help organisations create connected and successful workplaces.
Discover more about our research: Embracing Technology to Move FM Forward