Zpryme Trendz Volume XV

As Donald Rumsfeld infamously said, ‘You go to battle with the army you have’. I think we can all agree that we have a battle ahead of us in the utility industry. At the organizational level, it is a battle to stay relevant in the minds of consumers even as their attention gets sucked away by other interests, companies, and aspirations beyond the ones they’ve traditionally broadcasted to corporations. At the employee level, there is a battle to develop relevant skills as technology and consumer needs move along and change at a speed that is quite rapid. Your employees are also battling to stay critical to the strategic direction of your company as you make directions about what your priorities will be in these changing times and what technologies you will adopt. Some of these technologies might make some roles and jobs redundant within your organization. But the choice on how to handle that – get rid of a lot of people or figure out a way to augment your employees with these new technologies and approaches to doing work – still lies in the hands of leadership within your organization.

How do jobs disappear?

Elevator operators were considered important back in the days when elevators first came into buildings. There was the fear of the elevator plunging down the shaft if the operator wasn’t in it to control/manage things but the operator’s job was to stop the elevator at every floor and ensure people got in and out safely before the elevator moved up or down to the next floor. The elevator operators were like coffee shop baristas or tour guides today; there was the perceived specialized skill required to ensure the levers that controlled the elevator kept the elevators from free falling even though ordinary people could have controlled those levers themselves. Then Otis Elevators came along with the promise that the elevators would not freefall on the way down. There were tens of thousands of elevator operators in New York alone, many of them African Americans, and it took a full fifty years (1900-1950) before people finally truly got comfortable with the elevator as a safe technology. But there was the disruption to their jobs that caused the operators to go on strike in 1945 costing the city of New York millions of dollars. Things settled down and eventually, taking the skills of being ‘concierges’ for guests or visitors to buildings and ‘friends’ to those who lived in those apartments – bringing the barista/tour guide analogy full circle – these operators ended up becoming porters, bellhops and mailmen for the buildings they’d served before. Did they end up on the streets? No. The operators lost their old jobs but could transfer their skills to a new world with more advanced technology but an increasing need for personal connections with people who came in and out of those buildings. Could they have gotten better jobs? Not unless they’d gotten new skills.

What Lessons Can We Learn From Other Disruptions?

Some lessons from the elevator operator story above;

  • Everything, especially jobs, will always be changing. There were no ‘social media’ manager roles in any company in the 1990’s
  • Technology will replace but it can also augment, especially if we take the approach that there are better ways of doing things and humans will always have a role to play even as technology improves
  • Human creativity and ingenuity will always prevail and create jobs for people, but only if we choose to reward that creativity with the freedom to experiment, fail and learn.

What new jobs might exist in the future as technology changes?

Looking at the technologies that coming round the corner, or in some cases are around today, we can make some predictions about the types of jobs that will be critical in the future and can enable us to transfer the skills of our current employee base to fight the battles we have ahead or us. Some examples are

  1. Augmented/Virtual Reality Training Storybuilder: Augmented or virtual reality enables us to simulate real environments in the digital world. Flight simulators for pilots can be considered an early indicator of what we can do for things like safety training within the utility industry, but we cannot create those training simulations without the help of safety experts who have written these safety manuals and trained thousands of employees. Even as technology comes to change the approaches we have to training, the skills of those trainers can be converted into story building to simulate training scenarios.
  2. Smart (Intelligent) City/Asset Planner: As we digitize our infrastructure there will be a need for us to take the knowledge of asset management and grid planning that currently exists within our organizations and apply it to smart city building. Most of the companies coming into the industry with connected devices that together create the smarter city need the knowledge of grid planning and asset management that has been baked into the fabric of the utility. These employees can help the utility and all other stakeholders to understand how data (the new currency) can efficiently flow across the city in the same way as they’ve helped us figure out how electricity has flowed across the city for hundreds of years.
  3. Man-Machine Manager: The best people managers know what strengths and weaknesses the folks they manage have. The best technology strategist/managers understand what tools and approaches make sense for an organization to ensure that the organization thrives. In the future, a manager who is versed in both languages (technology and people) will help develop systems within the organization that enable humans and machines, especially intelligent machines like Artificial Intelligence, to seamlessly work together in order to achieve the goals and objectives that the company has.

You’ll notice that these examples, and there are many other roles like these, take the strengths of the individuals and apply them in a new world of technology in a hybrid approach. Technologies like AI/Big Data and MR/VR/AR are here and they will be an integral part of the thriving organizations of the future. We just have to decide how much of a part we want our current crop of employees to play in that future. I suggest that there is a big part for them to play, but only if we can connect the dots between the past, the present and the future and we are intentional about ensuring our people thrive too.

Till next week.