The unsung massive 10 year disruptor: Automation of knowledge work

I’m watching futurist Gerd Leonhard‘s June 23rd 2015 talk in London titled Future of technology and-with-versus humanity: Future of Business (terrible audio quality, sorry) and something jumped out and caught my eye.  (Leonhard is one of the world’s most influential futurists, among top futurist peers like Andy Hines, Paul Higgins and John Smart.)

It was a statistic about the Automation of Knowledge Work, and it was on a slide referencing the May 2013 McKinsey Global Institute report titled Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy. There are 12 different types of technology discussed but automation of knowledge work is defined as “Intelligent software systems that can perform knowledge work tasks involving unstructured commands and subtle judgments.”

McKinsey said in 2013 that automation of knowledge work is going to have the one of the largest economic impacts around the world of any of the most disruptive technologies over the next 10 years, impacting the $9 trillion dollars that makes up 27% of global employment costs that go to knowledge workers.

Interestingly, at least as of 2 years ago, the hype-to-potential discrepancy that McKinsey saw was intense. Look at this chart:

That’s right, automation of knowledge work is expected to have one of the very highest economic impacts of all these disruptive technologies – but is the very-least discussed among general interest and business publications. What does that mean? I think it means “get in now,” for one thing.  High potential, low hype sounds like an opportunity for arbitrage against the future.

I bet if you redrew this chart two years later, for example, Internet of Things would have shot way up the Y-axis, as suddenly media and big companies have gotten very excited about it.   (For what it’s worth, I was writing extensively about IoT more than 5 years ago in 2010, this being my favorite post: an interview with Chetan Sharma about How 50 Billion Connected Devices Could Transform Brand Marketing & Everyday Life.)

As someone who’s at-root interested in building technology that automates knowledge work, I’m pretty interested to read McKinsey’s findings on its disruptive potential. (“This is not a market size,” the report emphasizes.)

That size of potential market to impact just below mobile internet and above (though they insist these aren’t rankings) cloud computing, robotics, and more. Higher total numbers are cited for the Internet of Things, which could impact $36 trillion in operating costs of healthcare, manufacturing and mining, and the $11 trillion in global manufacturing GDP that could be impacted by 3D printing.

McKinsey: “Advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural user interfaces (e.g., voice recognition) are making it possible to automate many knowledge worker tasks that have long been regarded as impossible or impractical for machines to perform. For instance, some computers can answer ‘unstructured’ questions (i.e., those posed in ordinary language, rather than precisely written as software queries), so employees or customers without specialized training can get information on their own. [Me: I’m especially interested in things like subjective judgement that used to be exclusively the domain of humans.] This opens up possibilities for sweeping change in how knowledge work is organized and performed. Sophisticated analytics tools can be used to augment the talents of highly skilled employees [Me: Now we’re talking! Let’s talk about things that weren’t even possible before!], and as more knowledge worker tasks can be done by machine, it is also possible that some types of jobs could become fully automated.”

Later, the report says: “Automated knowledge work tools will almost certainly extend the powers of many types of workers and help drive top-line improvements with innovations and better decision making.”

Again, as someone whose company is building technology used by enterprises for expert discovery, detection of emerging knowledge and related marketing opportunities, I’m excited about that.

But as a human being who is excited about building, hopefully sharing widely and personally experiencing augmented cognition, I’m even more excited.

PS. This reminds me of one of my favorite graphs around skills, from the OECD several years ago, demonstrating that the only skills that have grown instead of declined over the past 50 years are non-routine analytic and non-routine interactive. I don’t know how I feel about this politically, I certainly think that non-ambitious people most interested in doing routing work deserve to be able to support a family with dignity and freedom, not in poverty, but this is a pretty darned interesting graph.


10 ideas for ways to expand your personal bandwidth

“I want to meet that person face to face, in order to get an idea what their bandwidth is.” I’ll never forget the first time I heard someone say that about someone else in business.

As a first-time startup leader, I have a lot to learn. In order to do my ever-changing job as well as possible and learn at the same time, one of the (many) things I’ve been thinking about is expanding my personal bandwidth. Why? So I can avoid being overwhelmed, make fewer mistakes, catch problems earlier and be more effective. Among other benefits.

I’m a fan of James Altutcher’s How to Become an Idea Machine, where he challenges readers to come up with 10 ideas every day. “People say ideas are a dime a dozen and that execution is everything. Is this true?” he asks. “No. Ideas are a dime for 3. A dozen ideas are hard. Try it.”

So the other day, I made as my daily list of 10 ideas, “10 ways I could increase my personal bandwidth.” Specifically, I made that list in June and this weekend I’m going over my notes from June (I give each month its own Evernote file), and doing the Discern and Assimilate parts of how Chuck Frey says we learn: Gather info, Discern which of it is worth keeping, Assimilate it into our worldview and Use it.

The other thing I like is Scott Young’s Feynman Technique for learning. (If you visit that page, please forgive Young’s persistent hucksterism for his e-learning course. It’s really obnoxious but his free resources are really valuable if you can tolerate that.) The Feynman Technique is this: take something hard that you’re aiming to learn and present it out loud, like you’re trying to teach it. Pay particular attention to the relationship between parts. Do this without looking at your notes, until you need to. Note the places where your understanding fails you – because that’s what you’ve got still to learn. As an exercise, it’s effective. A good example of Active Recall, another part of what Young recommends.

It’s been 3 weeks now since I made my list of 10 Ways I Can Increase My Personal Bandwidth, and in reviewing my notes I’ve now talked through them out loud a couple of times. I thought I’d post them here too.

Tell me what you think. What preamble!

  1. Read more, to reduce Unknown Unknowns. I’m reading The Essential Peter Drucker right now and learning about a bunch of questions in business that I had no knowledge of before. Drucker’s recommended answers to those questions are good – but being familiar with the questions alone feels like a big boost to bandwidth. One of the ways I’m making my online reading more efficient is to bookmark things in a to-read app, then send each link to a virtual assistant with a request to email me back the first paragraph and 3 bullet points with key facts or arguments from the article. I can scan 5 or 10 summaries pretty quickly each morning.
  2. Learn from experience, including by taking notes. The definition of Learning, in one dictionary at least, is “the acquisition of knowledge or skills, through experience, study or being taught.” I love that. So much of it flows together in practice, too. So I try to take, and revisit, a lot of notes. One thing I’ve been trying to do more and more of is this: when I come up with a new or tricky question about how to do my job, I open up Evernote, type out the question and then just write out my gut-level working answer. Based on previous thinking, just spit it out. Then, I set a reminder on the doc (only available on mobile app? I can’t find it on desktop) to revisit the question in 1 week. A lot happens in a week, so I come back with fresh eyes and see if I still like the answer I put down. I very often do, which is encouraging in the “trust your gut” department. If appropriate, I edit the doc with more perspective or info. Then, I change the alert to come back in 30 days and then in 1 year. One year might be too long, but that’s what I’ve been doing so far.
  3. Leverage mentors. I’ve got a number of friends or advisors who have been startup CEOs or business leaders otherwise and whose worldviews I really like. Talking with them is like an IV infusion of new thinking, experience and perspective. Except I look at it a little more critically than I might an IV. 🙂
  4. Delegate.
  5. Plan ahead. For myself and for those I would delegate to, the sooner you decide to turn the car, the less abrupt and disruptive the turn ends up being, right?
  6. Business rules. Make decisions ahead of time, in the abstract, like if/then statements. Don’t re-invent the wheel or make every decision anew every time. I haven’t really done this one much.
  7. Make fast decisions.
  8. Make a list and pick 6. Ram Charan said in an HBR interview in 2013 that the best CEOs “take in a lot of information from many sources and then crystalize a point of view. They sort and sift the information and select the handful of factors that matter most – usually no more than six – from the myriad possibilities. That’s what they’ll base their decisions on. They cut through the complexity to get to the heart of the matter, without getting superficial. And they do it without losing sight of the customer.” I bought that issue of HBR at an airport, for $20, and read that on the plane. It’s been on my bookshelf for the past 2 years and I’m glad I was able to grab it to type it in here tonight. I’ve been using that method ever since, often to make really fast decisions when there is a lot of complexity at issue.
  9. Pick your battles.
  10. Prioritize.

Done! That’s 10.

Readers, what have you done to expand your personal bandwidth?

Here’s a great suggestion over on Twitter: