It's Time for Technology To Tackle the Hard Stuff

March 1, 2001
New Web technology may bring job losses and a change in the way we do business.

It's Time for Technology To Tackle the Hard Stuff

As General Electric works to "move more of [its] business onto the Internet" through its "digitization program," newspapers report that its management could eliminate up to 80,000 jobs. This is only the latest figure on companies eliminating employees, but noteworthy because GE management specifically names technology as a catalyst.

Technology has eliminated jobs before, of course. But few would willingly admit it openly, stressing instead the jobs it created.

But, here’s a prediction: The next jobs technology will eliminate, or at least greatly shrink, will be those that involve Web browser development. (Even networking skills are not layoff-proof.) Also on the list are jobs that handle business-to-business transactions. The truth is, any job that does not involve the need for face-to-face contact, idea generation or high manual dexterity is in danger of elimination by technology.

The browserless Web will just be the latest threat. Technically literate people like Marc Andreesen, who co-founded Netscape, continue to find ways to automate business functions not in need of unique human skills. Network World recently quoted Andreesen, now chairman of Loudcloud, as saying, "There’s no reason why most of the Internet traffic within five years can’t be computers talking to computers." As businesses put more functions on the Internet, transactions, such as purchasing and ordering, could be done automatically, without human intervention. And if no people are involved in a transaction, then you don’t need an interface function like a Web browser for the activity.

Some of the tools that can enable businesses to automate many of their functions — like XML, Java and ActiveX — are already in place. Others, such as Universal Description, Discover and Integration, will come shortly.

A browserless version of the Internet is likely to strongly affect the manufacturing segment of supply chains, as parts, subassemblies and assemblies arrive just-in-time through orders carried out automatically by computer. One company moving in this direction, Arrow Electronics, is already able to provide same-day service rather than next-day, reports Network World, because of its use of e-commerce coalitions that rely heavily on automated computer initiation of business tasks.

But the cost of such automation is high in human terms. It appears that only those employees with the ability to generate ideas or move with more intelligence and dexterity than automated equipment are protected from layoffs.

Technology can and should do more than eliminate jobs. Eliminating jobs to enhance productivity is, as some say, "so 20th-century." Wall Street applauds, but let’s not forget, a good many of a company’s investors are its employees, who put some of their pay back into a company through stock options, mutual fund ownership and retirement plans.

The best use of technology is to create better jobs for people, ones that enable people to make the most of their uniquely human creativity, contact and dexterity skills. But such creation won’t come from top management, because only employees truly know their jobs. This is where training, and cross-training, come in. Managers need to keep their employees knowledgeable about technology, so that they can take advantage of the opportunities they see to improve the task. You never know; orderpicker "Joe" may have a terrific idea for selecting orders that’s better than pick-to-light, but he doesn’t know enough about technology to develop the idea.

What are you going to do about this? Are you creative enough to apply technology that opens better, more fulfilling jobs, instead of just chopping heads?

Leslie Langnau

senior technical editor

[email protected]

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