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Race Against The Machine: 5 Takeaways For IT

IBM's Watson and the Google car represent just two examples of how the pace of technology change moves faster than we can keep up right now, said MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson. What will that pace mean to IT as a career?

Laurianne McLaughlin

September 11, 2012

4 Min Read

Eight years ago, MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson thought the idea of a bakery truck driver's job being replaced by a computer sounded far-fetched. This year, he rode in the Google car--no human required.

The pace of technology is changing so rapidly that our skills, organizations, and schools aren't keeping up, he told the audience at the InformationWeek 500 conference Monday. Brynjolfsson, author of Race Against The Machine, said that's causing what he calls the great paradox of our generation. While productivity continues to head north and wealth creation has never been greater than in the past decade, the average worker is worse off, median family income has fallen, and fewer people are working, he said. "There's no economic law that everyone is going to share equally in the benefits," he said.

As the top U.S. earners continue to earn more, other people are left behind as their incomes and jobs disappear, he said. Brace yourself, he said, because the next 10 years will be even more disruptive.

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Consider these five takeaways about the pace of technology change now and what it will mean to you and your organization.

1. It's Not Just Low-Level Jobs Vanishing

Computers now can do many tasks that people used to do--not only in IT but also in sales, logistics, and analytics, noted Brynjolfsson. That's one reason not everyone will share in the economic gains of the next decade. "It's entirely possible you can make the pie much bigger and not have everyone benefit," he said.

2. Success Scales Differently Now

In the last decade, 64% of the U.S. income gains were earned by the top 1% of the people, he said. Whereas in the decades after World War II, incomes and jobs were rising steadily from top to bottom of the spectrum, now the top 1% is using technology to succeed on a scale that was not possible before, he said.

3. Look For Three Sets Of Winners And Losers

Given the pace of technology change that shows no sign of stopping, you can expect three sets of winners and losers, Brynjolfsson said. First, high-skilled and low-skilled workers will find themselves in very different places. Second, wealth creation becomes a battle of superstars versus everyone else, he said. Music superstars multiply their influence and earnings using digital technologies; software superstars are writing algorithms that replace professionals like tax preparers. Finally, look closely at where corporate profits are being directed, he said. Capital vs. labor. Corporate profits are at an all time high, but that money is being directed to capital, not laborers.

4. The Next 10 Years Will Be More Disruptive

What new jobs might be replaced by technology, just as manufacturing jobs have been replaced by robots? Perhaps more jobs than you think, Brynjolfsson said. Consider IBM's Watson technology. IBM didn't design Watson just to win Jeopardy, of course. IBM is developing different versions of Watson for targeted industries. The Watson technology is now getting jobs on Wall Street, working in call centers, and answering prescription questions, Brynjolfsson said.

So, as InformationWeek editor Art Wittmann noted in a Twitter post, you may already be taking investment advice from Watson.

5. Skills, Organizations, And Schools Don't Change As Fast As Computers

IT leaders looking for specific technology skills understand how quickly hiring needs can change, leading to situations like the current demand for data scientists to work on big data projects. Digital technologies will continue to accelerate, Brynjolfsson said, creating a bigger mismatch of needs and skills. "Business as usual won't solve this problem," he said.

Seth Ravin, CEO of Rimini Street, noted that the pace of change has already changed how he is hiring. "I am hiring problem solvers, not for skills," Ravin said. "It's a very different skill set."

That's one bright side in an otherwise unsettling picture that Brynjolfsson paints for IT leaders and IT careers, not to mention the larger U.S. employment outlook. In the age of Google, people who can ask the right questions become more valuable than people who are a font of knowledge. "Being creative, that's a uniquely human skill," Brynjolfsson said.

A crucial question is whether IT leaders will change their hiring habits in light of the new pace of technology change. General Motors CIO Randy Mott, who spoke later in the day at the conference, said that he still has to convince some people to hire new college grads, who he has always favored in his IT organizations for their energy and their ability to tackle problems in new ways.

But he said, too often the hiring spec is a seven-year person with seven specific skills. "Never mind that there's four of them on the planet," Mott said. You could almost hear the collective wince in the audience as that statement rang true with many IT leaders who follow a hiring process that has become incredibly targeted.

About the Author(s)

Laurianne McLaughlin

Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek.com

Laurianne McLaughlin currently serves as InformationWeek.com's Editor-in-Chief, overseeing daily online editorial operations. Prior to joining InformationWeek in May, 2011, she was managing editor at CIO.com. Her writing and editing work has won multiple ASBPE (American Society of Business Publication Editors) awards, including ASBPE's 2010 B2B Web Site of the year award for CIO.com. Previously, McLaughlin served as a senior editor, online for Business 2.0 and as a senior editor for PC World, where she started her technology journalism career in 1992 as a news reporter. She is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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