Marking Responsible Business Week, Business in the Community CEO Amanda Mackenzie outlines how companies can use new technology to support employees, not undermine them
There is a great deal of noise and concern about the future of technology, with each day bringing a new headline or report grappling with what artificial intelligence and robotics mean for society and business. The workplace is the most visible frontier experiencing huge transformation in response to technology, with some forecasts suggesting that as many as 10 million jobs could be lost to automation by 2035. At the same time we know that businesses are struggling to skill their people in response to these changes: 72% of large companies and 49% of SMEs say they have a digital skills gap in their workforce.
Business in the Community, The Prince's Responsible Business Network, has worked for over 30 years to support and challenge business to take action on the most pressing social and environmental issues, helping companies bring their expertise into communities across the UK.
Many of the issues businesses are addressing within communities have not changed. Employee volunteers are vital to mentor young people by opening a window on careers that can inspire them to go further. Job programmes that help the long-term unemployed into fulfilling work are needed more than ever. And the fight to create workforces that genuinely reflect the rich diversity of society in terms of race, gender, age and where wellbeing is central will continue.
Reap the digital dividend
In this technological age what has changed profoundly are the rules. No longer is CSR optional philanthropy, or even enlightened self-interest. Responsible businesses now have the opportunity to move beyond philanthropy to anticipate and harness all that digital transformation could bring, and in the process benefit every community in the UK. Leaders need to think about what the next 20 or 50 years will bring, not just about the next three year business planning cycle. We have not faced such seminal decisions in generations.
There is certainly reason for optimism. Estimates suggest that the digital economy is creating jobs three times faster than the rest of the economy and artificial intelligence could boost productivity by 25% by 2035. Technology could liberate people from low-skilled work, open up new industries, increase profits and create efficiencies that will be of huge value to the economy. But we will only reap these benefits if business consciously decides to put people at the heart of the way it responds.
Over the past year, Business in the Community, in partnership with Accenture Strategy, has been looking at what business can do to create this inclusive digital revolution and ensure no one gets left behind. By working with dozens of senior leaders we have identified four priorities that will help responsible businesses embrace transformation and tackle its unintended consequences:
1 Embrace the changing nature of work and build a workforce that is flexible and adaptable, prepared to be retrained and re-skilled perhaps several times through a working life. Just because we are able to automate work, it doesn’t mean we always should. Instead we are asking businesses to make the conscious decision to use technology so it can enhance and support people, and not compete with them. For example, Xchanging is an outsourcing company working in the insurance sector that introduced robots to do repetitive tasks, which freed up staff for higher value roles. Some employees were retrained to manage the robotic processes and, despite the introduction of 27 robots, no job was lost.
2 Actively protect, support and empower customers as we increasingly shop online, and ensure that consumers understand how their data is being used, stored and shared.
3 Invest in R&D so that you develop innovative and purposeful products that serve society as well as the bottom line. For example, Watersmart is software that uses behavioural psychology and online tools to educate customers to save water. Utilities companies can use this technology to communicate with their customers about leaks, and it has already led to a 5% reduction in water use during trials.
4 Use technology to create more transparent and ethical supply chains, even in industries where this has traditionally been very difficult. Everledger is a “digital passport” for diamonds, and allows each diamond to be tracked and verified, helping to stop the trade of diamonds from conflict zones.
Technology has the ability to create positive impact on communities, employees and our world. Businesses committed to acting responsibly are thinking and acting to ensure it does. After all, surely technology is there first and foremost to serve people and improve lives.
Amanda Mackenzie OBE is chief executive of Business in the Community. Responsible Business Week 2017 is 24-28 April.
technology automation digital artificial intelligence robotics digital economy