Archive for September, 2010

Laptop or washing machine?

26th September 2010

Every second, 750 tweets chatter through twitter. Two billion YouTube videos frolic across screens each day and two and a half billion new photos giggle on to Facebook every month. This is not sufficiently significant in the eyes of Ha-Joon Chang. The famously challenging Cambridge economist writes in his new book ‘23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism’ that, so far, the washing machine has had a bigger effect on the world than the internet.

20100925_STP504_412Chang points out that most current internet use is for leisure, not work. He says that the washing machine, by freeing women from housework and domestic servants from drudgery, radicalised the labour market and society. His view is that the washing machine and other domestic appliances, alongside the electricity and piped water that they utilise, changed far more than even the mighty web 2.0 has yet to manage. This is entertaining and clever and may even be right, at least outside of the etiolating newspaper and music publishing industries, but my reading of Chang is that there are a whole bunch of unforeseen consequences that technology has yet to let rip on the workplace.

With our shrinking state and the Government’s fond expectation that the private sector will step in and create some lovely new jobs, this could be a timely thought. Research published at MIT by David Autor and David Dorn has looked at the effect of technology implementation on jobs. Taking data from the US Department of Labour, the two Davids classified roles at work as either routine or non-routine and, therefore, more or less liable to automation. Under this classification, white collar roles such as bank supervisor or payroll clerk become more vulnerable to the impact of technology than blue collar roles such as firefighter or bus driver. The MIT paper finds that between 1980 and 2005, those intermediate jobs were indeed the ones most likely to disappear. The result is the current polarised workplace where high skilled and low skilled jobs predominate and technology fills the gap in between. Research elsewhere supports this ‘hollowing out’ of the workplace across Japan and Europe and also demonstrates that those industries with the highest IT spending show the sharpest decline in demand for these semi-skilled workers. Stripping out layers of management, flattening hierarchies and implementing self managed teams has been the work of many an HRM over the last twenty years but its the ability of the technology to automate and lose those middle tier jobs which has made it possible. The currently jobless recovery in the US might be demonstrating the long term effect of this change.

Although the potential for the internet to be a radical force at work is real, there is only skimpy evidence that the “Wikinomics” envisaged in 2006 by Tapscott and Williams is capturing the imagination and cheque books of CEOs in the private sector. These guys are far more likely to use the internet to do some safe old things in new ways, such as home delivery of your books or groceries. But the public sector is different. ‘Crowd sourcing’ is what the local delivery of services should have always been about but has never really managed, at least in my lifetime. If I was heading up one of Andrew Lansley’s new Primary Care consortia, for example, I think I’d move everything I can to the private sector and their proven technology to deliver the immediate efficiencies and savings that I need through automation. I might also just take a punt on some of the new fangled collaborative stuff to satisfy the involvement and engagement agenda that the GPs need to get the initiative off the ground and which the legislation is bound to force on me to involve my patients once I’m up and running. This could be great for those selling technology, it could even be great for Doctors and Patients but its rubbish for those whose job in the PCT will disappear and might just never come back.

The debate in the US is whether the current level of unemployment there is cyclical or a systemic consequence of technology. If its the later, look out for trouble that will make the washing machine look benign. But then, I always thought it was.