You walk into a restaurant to be greeted by a robot, its face fixed in an expression of synthetic courtesy, and it asks if you would like to dine inside or out. After being seated at a booth indoors, another robot comes up to your table, inquires about your day, and then recites the daily specials. Suddenly you notice there are others working inside the restaurant: one labors over a grill in the kitchen, another wipes down a nearby table. In fact, you haven’t spotted one human member of the restaurant staff yet.
This scenario is already a near reality for certain restaurants. According to an article in The Atlantic, “Robots Will Transform Fast Food,” a restaurant in Nagasaki, Japan, named Henn-na has robots serving food to its customers — these mechanical, human-like figures stir batter, “man” an industrial stove, and dole out soft-serve ice cream into waffle cones. And the company that runs the restaurant, H.I.S., hasn’t stopped with the food service industry. It also runs a nearby hotel where “robots check guests into their rooms and help with their luggage.”
This represents only one example of how technology is continuing to embed itself into the way we do business across a host of industries. From the burgeoning novelty of driverless cars to innovative services like Uber and Airbnb that give the term “convenience” entirely new meaning, we are witnessing a business landscape in perpetual flux. Additionally, those who are increasingly moving into the ranks of our workforce — millennials and soon-to-be post-millennials — have shifting values regarding the businesses they interact with as both employees and customers, leading to the emergence of values-aligned brands and organizations, flexible and nontraditional work schedules, and shared public work spaces.
Unbridled technological innovations, the transformation of public values and priorities, and an increased emphasis on what can be called a “knowledge economy” have set the stage for the next couple of decades in the world of business. In order to keep pace in both sustaining and starting businesses, it will be critical to understand and adapt to this expansive commercial horizon of the future.
From the burgeoning novelty of driverless cars to innovative services like Uber and Airbnb that give the term “convenience” entirely new meaning, we are witnessing a business landscape in perpetual flux.
The Rise of the Artificial Worker
It’s impossible to consider the future of business without weighing the role that technology will continue to play. The emergence of cloud computing, digital platforms, crowdsourcing, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, big data, and more have altered the way business is conducted. The combination of refined geo-targeting technology with smartphones enabled the emergence of companies like Uber and Lyft, drastically altering the service transportation industry. Algorithms designed to target customer behaviors and the ability to collect large swaths of data about them has forever changed the way companies reach consumers through their marketing and advertising strategies.
An article from Stanford’s school of business publication, titled “Four Ways Work Will Change in the Future,” explains “that by 2030, about half of today’s jobs will be gone…automation will perform many current blue-collar and white-collar jobs, while independent contractors will fill a large fraction of future positions.”
We’re already seeing how this might play out with driverless cars and automated customer service. However, while no one can predict exactly how technological innovation will affect the human workforce, not everyone sees this as cause for alarm. Some point to the fact that technology has been displacing jobs for years — from assembly line workers to bank tellers. The Stanford article goes on to state that “robots and other automation in the short term will displace individual workers, but technology over the long term is likely to create new economic opportunity and new jobs.”
This opinion is shared by Frank Marshall, DBA, PLNU professor of business. He calls to mind the archetypal example of Ford to prove his case.
“In Ford’s assembly line, everything used to be done by hand,” Marshall said. “Then we brought on automation via robotics, and although robotics have definitely taken certain jobs, we still have workers in the factory, but they’re now responsible for the software programming, engineering, and other roles related to ensuring the robotics are working properly.”
This makes up only one of the many examples of technology’s supplanting of human jobs while simultaneously creating new ones.
Another reason there may still be a good number of jobs for humans is because we can still “out think” machines in a number of ways. We can ingest massive amounts of data simultaneously through our senses, whereas machines can only take in the specific data that has been prescribed by their programming.
Uber serves as one primary example. Uber uses automatic surge pricing for busier times in order to balance supply and demand. They do this to encourage more drivers to participate when actual or expected supply is not keeping pace with demand. However, in December of 2014, an Iranian cleric took eighteen people hostage in a cafe in Sydney, Australia. When people attempted to flee the area using Uber to do so, Uber’s computer systems spiked the pricing as a reaction to the increased demand. Naturally, the company came under heavy fire. The algorithm simply responded to the change in demand without being able to consider other factors — empathy, ethics, moral obligations, etc. — that a human would have been able to do in order to override the implementation of surge pricing in this instance.
Another reason there may still be a good number of jobs for humans is because we can still “out think” machines in a number of ways.
The example above was cited in the book Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. Not only is human judgement, critical thinking, and ethical decision-making something unique to humans, but so also is our ability to relate to each other with the emotional depth and resonance that only human beings understand, which McAfee and Brynjolfsson state explicitly:
“To know what people want next usually requires a deep understanding of what it means to be a person, and what it’s like to experience the world with all our senses and emotions. As far as we can tell and for a long time to come, we humans are the only ones with that knowledge.”
In the area of ethical judgement, the weighing of several pieces of disparate data, creative thinking, and relational and compassionate understanding, we still far exceed our synthetic counterparts.
A New Kind of Human Worker
In addition to the innovative tools themselves, the humans using them are also changing. As millennials flesh out the modern business landscape, they continue to approach their work with a different mindset than generations of the past. For one, they demand greater transparency and values-aligned conduct from the companies with which they do business or for which they work. Increasingly, potential employees and customers don’t want to be involved with national corporations that only care about profits and market share instead of the public good, even if it means spending more money for an equal product or service. This is why companies like Patagonia, Toms, and Dove have done well; they have focused on instilling values beyond the bottom line, whether that’s sustainability, socioeconomic equality, or healthy views of female beauty. As a Forbes article from Dan Schawebel puts it, “[millennials] expect brands to give back to society. 75 [percent] said that it’s either fairly or very important that a company gives back to society instead of just making a profit.”
Young workers in the business world are also not as partial to older employment models that, in their view, reduce them to machines. Instead of having to work the same hours the same days a week, new workers want to be able to work in a capacity that fosters a healthier work-life balance. Although more research is needed, one article by Forbes, “Are Remote Workers More Productive Than In-Office Workers?,” looks at how working from home can actually enable out-of-office employees to be more productive than in-office ones.
Still another result of this new worker demographic is the rise of communal workspaces. Companies like WeWork and DeskHub enable diverse groups of workers to gather in one, communal space. The idea works like this: individuals or small companies rent out space in a common work area as opposed to purchasing or renting their own private workspace. PLNU alumnus Nate Cadiuex (08) and MBA lecturer Ryan Sisson launched their own workspace in San Diego called Moniker Commons in 2017. This new working scenario means that a graphic designer for one company might work alongside a developer for another — allowing a melting pot of diverse professionals who can share insights and ideas for greater creativity, problem-solving, and innovation.
Young workers in the business world are also not as partial to older employment models that, in their view, reduce them to machines.
“The upshot of such a common workspace is not just the stuff of WeWork’s corporate talking points,” Marshall explained. “Prominent 20th-century urban theorists like Jane Jacobs and the economist Robert Lucas have argued that dense packs of talented workers boost local economies and innovative thinking, and recent data-backed research supports their theory. In a way, WeWork is taking the ‘creative clustering’ already happening in cosmopolitan centers and concentrating it in a few thousand square feet of class-A office space.”
Staying Relevant for the Future
With these changes in technology and the nature of the workforce, how can those of us within this new business landscape — or planning to embark into it — stay ahead of the curve? Although basic business principles remain the same from decade to decade, the way we implement these principles continues to change at a faster pace.
Randal Schober, Ed.D., PLNU professor of management, thinks the fear of technology replacing jobs is somewhat limiting. In his view, unless employees and aspiring business owners take on an entrepreneurial mindset, they will be replaced no matter what — either by a robot, artificial intelligence, or a more efficient and/or inexpensive human worker.
“I tell my students, ‘In today’s workforce, there is no average or normal anymore,’” Schober explained. “If you are only meeting the job’s minimal requirements, you’re going to be replaced by something or someone who is willing to add greater value. The future workforce is going to look different, some jobs today will not exist tomorrow and new jobs will be created. Therefore it is essential that we shift our expectations, motivations, skills, and knowledge accordingly.”
This is why Schober spends much of his time teaching students how to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. While he understands that only a small percentage of students will actually build a startup, the majority will still need be entrepreneurial within an established organization. In both cases, the individual must be creative, innovative, and effective to be successful.
One example of how Schober aids students in adopting this entrepreneurial mindset is by assigning them to work on solving a real-world problem and build a business around their solution. Everyone has a business idea. However, the difference between a great idea and a great business opportunity has to do with market need and acceptance. To prove this, his students must first ensure that their given idea is actually going to solve a real problem for a specific customer demographic. This requires that they go out and validate whether or not this is a real problem by acquiring data from that target market. Similar to a scientist conducting an experiment, his students must devote themselves to collecting empirical data in order to test their assumptions.
“I ask them to define their ideal customer to such detail that they end up developing a unique customer persona. From there they define the problem this customer persona is experiencing. Next, they must go out and prove that this is actually a problem — and once validated — prove that their solution solves that problem. Following additional validation, they must then build a business strategy that is sustainable,” Schober explained. “Many new start-ups don’t solve a big enough problem, don’t have a unique value proposition, or fail to have a profitable business model. Overall, continuous value creation must be founded in a real-world environment that benefits the company as a whole.”
It’s this type of in-depth curriculum that is necessary to form future business professionals who can meet the unknown demands of the future. One article from Time, “How College Students Should Prepare for Our Automated Future,” encourages a solution that is similar to what Schober is already doing to some degree:
“First, we must design and implement a curriculum that empowers humans to do those jobs only humans can do. Call it humanics. This curriculum provides students with three literacies: technical literacy, data literacy, and human literacy (such as teamwork, entrepreneurship, creativity, ethics, and cultural agility). Then it integrates them, allowing learners to develop a creative mindset and the mental elasticity to invent, discover, and produce original ideas in the A.I. age.”
This means that our business schools can’t just translate business knowledge — which still remains important — but must also foster the creative, critical thinking, and relational skills that separate us from machines and affirm our value in the world of commerce.
Overall, continuous value creation must be founded in a real-world environment that benefits the company as a whole.
This doesn’t mean that simply attending a business school with such a mindset is enough either — we must remain lifelong learners. Marshall emphasized the need to adapt to this new knowledge economy, where intellectual and creative skills are supremely valued. It’s this type of economy that benefits from flexible work schedules or common work areas precisely because these non-traditional practices can foster greater creativity and human-specific thinking that makes us valuable contributors to society.
“As the world continues to change, it’s going to require us to change as well,” Marshall reflected. “We’re in a knowledge economy and therefore we have to continue to learn in order to advance. Otherwise, the person who graduated six years ago will be out of a job. So my advice is always, ‘Keep looking for opportunities that are going to challenge you to grow. Go find a mentor, for example, but not just one, many of them.’”
Although it’s widely accepted that technological innovation will continue to supplant lower-level jobs, the new human jobs that will result will be of a higher order. These new jobs will not only require greater creativity, leadership abilities, critical thinking, and technological savvy, but also a commitment to ethical and humane business initiatives that more and more workers and consumers care about today. And this is why the future of business won’t ultimately belong to robots or some novel technology — because it remains only within our power to ensure our businesses remain innovative, people-oriented, and truly beneficial to our communities. The way of the successful business man or woman of tomorrow, therefore, entails honoring the very distinct qualities and behaviors that make us most human.