Are you surplus to requirements?
Editorial

Are you surplus to requirements?

How do you react when your industry becomes obsolete or your role is no longer required?

The word ‘sabotage’ comes from sabot, the name given to wooden clogs traditionally worn by the French working class. When the machines of the industrial revolution made traditional ways of working uncompetitive, angry labourers would throw the shoes into the gears to wreck them: sabotage.

Modern workers who find their skills obsolete can’t restore their monopoly by throwing shoes at the laptop – you can’t sabotage the internet with a pair of patent leathers. So how should they respond?

This is an urgent question. It’s widely reported how automation is making more and more of us surplus to requirements. Interactive voice response (IVR) systems handle enquiries at call centres. Checkout staff are replaced by self-service terminals. Amazon and other online retailers put pressure on both bricks-and-mortar outlets and customer-facing staff, and drones might even make the deliveries. Truck, train and plane operators are also under threat from self-driving vehicles.

And it’s not just low-skill work that’s disappearing – white-collar employees are no longer safe. Computers are taking over mundane office tasks, meaning that many people in the lower echelons of fields like law and accounting will face the same fate as the typing pool, rendered surplus to requirements by software.

According to Oxford University researchers, 45% of the jobs in the United States will be automated over the next 20 years. Thanks to the accelerating pace of change, we can expect tech-related redundancies to become increasingly common.

Don't panic

Fortunately, automation doesn’t mean that everyone will be unemployed by 2050 – the good news is that technology opens up new opportunities. In fact, according to Deloitte, advances actually created more career paths than they destroyed over the last 140 years.

What’s more, jobs that involve manual drudgery have declined – the percentage of the population employed in agricultural labour is down 95% – in favour of intellectually challenging and fulfilling work in care, services and creative work. Perhaps the original saboteurs were wrong after all.

Double trouble

So what does all this mean for marketers in particular? Well, there are potential career challenges on two fronts.

Firstly, some will find themselves specialising in an industry that becomes antiquated almost overnight. The only response to this is to roll with the punches – for which education is the best method.

To survive this kind of career-killer means recognising that you need to be flexible, working to obtain a spread of qualifications, and committing yourself to gaining broad experience and a diverse CV. If you have training in several disciplines and experience across industries, change will be less disruptive.

The second problem marketers will face is change in how the job is carried out. The basics required of employees, such as digital fluency, creativity and interpersonal skills, are unlikely to change – but the way these abilities are used undoubtedly will. Like programmers still writing code in Pascal during the early 1990s, people will have to learn a new language to stay in the industry.

Most of us are already adapting, embracing new technologies and techniques. However, a Millward Brown study recently reported that only 14% of marketers feel they are using big data effectively, while an IBM survey of global marketers last year revealed only 20% of CMOs were leveraging social networks to engage with customers as part of their digital marketing efforts. Those who are on top of their game should not get complacent – those who are falling behind should beware.

A further potential issue is that automation might mean a smaller team can do the same amount of work, so companies could cut staff. Like automation freed our ancestors from manual drudgery, marketing automation liberates people from collecting and analysing figures.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean there will be job cuts. In fact, rather than making people redundant, it will give them more time to deal with an explosion of new work.

The internet has birthed new media and new channels to reach the customer over the last decade, while giving us better tools to understand them – YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Salesforce, Twitter, Pinterest, Mixpanel, Kapost and a hundred others. There’s plenty of space for people to plan and monitor campaigns in new ways.

While automation will help to make campaigns more focused, coordinated and easy to execute, technology is as yet incapable of acting or reacting without humans. For starters, a machine’s output is only as good as its input. You need somebody to figure out which data is relevant.

You also need people to analyse and assess the human responses – to get beyond simplistic factors like click-throughs and likes, and respond in an intelligent way when people become enthusiastic about a campaign or take offence.

Ultimately, change can be a spur to creativity rather than suppressing it – if the saboteurs had destroyed the machines, we would not have the intellectually challenging careers that we enjoy today. Who knows where tomorrow’s changes will take us?

Thomas Brown CIM Former Director, Strategy and Marketing
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