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THE FUTURE OF WORK IS HERE

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Robots aren’t going to take everyone’s jobs, but technology has already reshaped the world of work in ways that are creating clear winners and losers. While no one knows what artificial intelligence’s effect on work will be, we can all agree on one thing: It’s disruptive. All it takes is to type in the words “Future of Work” into google and you will be presented with over 3.5 billion search hits, a clear indicator that this is an increasingly pertinent topic. A wide spectrum of stakeholders from business owners, leaders, HR practitioners, academics to the general public are concerned about how our new world of work in the 4th industrial revolution will look like. How will jobs evolve and which skills and competencies will enable a competitive advantage at individual and corporate levels? 

In truth, technological advancements are rapidly blurring the lines between work that is performed by humans and work performed by machines. The World Economic Forum (WEF) in its 2018 Future of Jobs Report, found that if managed and harnessed wisely emerging technological developments could lead to a better quality of life and more efficient work but if managed poorly, they could widen inequalities and skills gaps. 

Over the next four weeks, we will explore the changing world of work landscape with a focus on the East Africa region. As we identify emerging opportunities, we will also discuss the implications for African governments, business owners and leaders in the region as well as the role of HR practitioners in the paradigm shift,  because even though the Future Of Work has caught up with us, it may create more jobs than it displaces. By offering new tools for entrepreneurs, it may also create new lines of business that we can’t imagine now. 

THE CHANGING WORLD OF WORK

On the worst days, Mark Borris used to go 24 hours without seeing his daughter with her eyes open. A soft-spoken tax accountant working in a global consulting firm, he hated saying no when she asked for a ride to preschool. By November, he’d had enough.  Borris, 33, met with two of the firm’s partners and his senior manager, telling them he needed a change. They went for it. In January, Borris started telecommuting four days a week, and when Kathryn, 4, starts T-ball this summer, he will be sitting along the baseline.

In this economy, Borris move might sound like hopping onto the mommy track – or off the career track. But he’s actually making a shrewd move. While the 4th industrial revolution carries many uncertainties, each industrial revolution before it has brought about change and transformation each with its own set of unknowns. 

The 1st industrial revolution, which mainly affected Europe and the United States, changed the textile industry moving it from hand production to mechanization.  The 2nd industrial revolution, championed by Taylor and Ford, introduced the moving assembly line and enabled for mass production. The 3rd industrial revolution marked the beginning of the information age with internet technology emerging to create a new work infrastructure.  Throughout each of these industrial revolutions, jobs changed, and work was re-defined. 

Like Borris’ company more and more companies are searching for creative ways to fit into the Future of Work narrative, by experimenting different ways of working. 

FUTURE OF WORK AND AFRICAN ECONOMIES

Coming closer to home, in the first two industrial revolutions, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, we were mainly on the receiving end. As a matter of fact, unlike Europe, America and some Asian countries, many Sub-Saharan African countries are arguably still grappling with 1st and 2nd industrial revolution issues, from rural electrification, irregular energy supply for existing factories, basic health care services  and shortages of skilled labor, having not gone through the 360 cycle of industrialization. 

However, the 3rd and now 4th industrial revolutions provide an unprecedented opportunity for African countries and African talent to become major continental and global players, influencing and shaping how work is done. 

Safaricom’s introduction of the Mpesa mobile money platform is perhaps one of the best known and most frequently cited examples, certainly in the East Africa region. Through this introduction, industry lines were blurred as Mpesa eased money transactions, provided access to new segments of the population not considered by traditional banks, opening up a whole new world of business opportunities. Since then, a number of money lending applications such as Tala, Usawa, Haraka mobile loans, Okolea and Okash amongst others have emerged, processing loans for the unbanked and banked population in less than 24 hours and with less cumbersome processes as compared to traditional banks. 

A second example can be found in the African online learning platform Zydii.com which allows learners to access relevant and contextual learning from the comfort of their phones and instructors from all over Africa to provide their learning content. Thus, challenging traditional modes of learning and education, both in terms of how and where learning takes place as well as who can create and deliver learning content. 

As tech savvy enterprises continue to tap into new technology, it is likely that an increasing array of options will be available for consumers to educate themselves and invest into professional development and learning on the go. 

Despite the evident opportunities for Africa and African talent, the 4th industrial revolution also comes with risks. In 2018, the WEF cautioned that the 4th industrial revolution will decrease the number of workers required to carry out certain tasks. While there will likely be an increase in demand for new job profiles and roles, these transitions will need to be managed through re-skilling or up-skilling of the workforce. Similarly, the World Bank notes a tension between jobs that will be lost through automation such as in the manufacturing sector and the jobs that will be gained through innovation in new sectors yet to fully emerge.

Several companies spanning diverse industries and sectors from Telkom Kenya, Stanbic, East African Breweries Ltd and South Africa’s Multichoice have been making headlines due to large layoff plans. Many of the companies have sited adoption and emergence of new technology as one of the reasons for these retrenchments. 

At the same time, businesses across the world are increasingly forced to manage multiple-new realities, changing operating models and shifting expectations. This includes the multi-generational workforce, changing workforce patterns, social labor trends, shareholder and customer demands for corporate social conscious and employees seeking purpose, belonging and meaning in their work beyond financial remuneration.

With the amount of disruption and changed witnessed thus far, many questions arise.  Shall Africa be faced with the possibility of a jobless 21st and 22nd Century? How will the 4th industrial revolution affect jobs and work in Africa? What can be done to mitigate risks and tap into emerging opportunities? Which business functions are uniquely positioned to prepare the workforce and executives for the future or work? And how do these roles themselves need to transform, adapt and change to be able to accomplish this?

Future of Work continues next week. 


[1.2] The Future of Jobs Report 2018, Centre for the New Economy and Society, World Economic Forum

[3] Jieun, C., Dutz, M., and Usman, Z., The Future of Work in Africa, Harnessing the Potential of Digital Technologies for All, Advance Edition, The World Bank, July 2019.

[4] Obura. F, Tough times as Kenyan companies plan mass job cuts, Standard Digital, 9th August 2019. Available from https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/business/article/2001337474/tough-time-as-companies-plan-mass-job-cuts

[5] Dludla. N, South Africa’s MultiChoice looks to lay off more than 2000 workers, Reuters, 21st June 2019. Available from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-multichoice-grp-layoffs/south-africas-multichoice-looks-to-lay-off-more-than-2000-workers-idUSKCN1TM2G7

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