Disruption with IT

July 03, 2017

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EARLIER this year, one of the largest banks in Pakistan piloted a digital branch. Located in Karachi, it provides all the basic services of a bank branch without the need to employ any personnel. The bank plans to open several more branches this year and expand all over the country. More recently, Bloomberg reported that a prominent technology company in Pakistan has planned an initial public offering to take advantage of increasing digitalisation.

The digital revolution, much talked about all over the world, is now visible in this country. In the next few years, we can expect to see rapid technological change with the potential to transform the way we live, work, play and interact. We see changes taking place in our homes and in the public sphere, where technologies that were non-existent until recently — from social media to Careem — are now ubiquitous and are having wide-ranging impact (consider the role of Facebook in the US elections).

These developments beg the questions: are we prepared for this new digital world? Do we have the capabilities to harness the immense potential of these disruptive forces and, more importantly, are we ready to face the challenges they will bring with them?

Are we prepared for the new digital world?

It is a fact often repeated in business schools that a large majority of the companies that were in the Fortune 500 list a few decades ago have since fallen off. It is partly the ruthless demand for innovation and agility in the digital age that is fuelling the rise and fall of companies.

This is not just relevant to private-sector businesses. It also has a bearing on individual citizens — how do you stay relevant and hire-able in an increasingly competitive and rapidly evolving job market — and on governments — how do you harness the potential for technology to bring development and inclusion? How do you frame technology policy and how do you invest in your human capital?

A sales executive at a software company recently described how one of the biggest barriers in the sales process is convincing the IT department of a company to adopt a new enterprise solution. While the upper management is usually delighted by the new technologies as they help cut costs and bring efficiencies, other employees tend to be highly insecure as new software solutions threaten their job security.

A case in point is the transportation industry: with the increasing market penetration of Uber and Careem — how many rickshaw and taxi drivers might be unable to sustain themselves as these apps gain users? The next step in this trajectory is self-driving cars. With Google, Toyota and many more companies investing R&D in autonomous cars, how many drivers might find themselves unemployed in the future? This is a common theme across industries and job functions.

As artificial intelligence and the internet of things become more widespread, workers on manufacturing floors and in the agricultural sector may be replaced by machines and robots. The rise of digital assistants and bots with machine-learning capabilities mean many other workers such as administrative assistants, call centre agents and customer service professionals may find their skills redundant in the future.

While digital transformation in Pakistan is imminent and should be welcomed, it will also bring efficiencies which are likely to result in lay-offs. Is this an indication of a future with fewer jobs and high unemployment, where jobs such as bank tellers and factory workers will be obsolete? With businesses engaged in a competitive and ruthless race to improve their bottom line and to innovate, automation and digitisation of everything are the ultimate goals. Do we have re-training programmes for workers whose skills will soon be irrelevant, and do we have the capabilities to equip the next generation of workers with relevant skill sets?

We need to take steps to ensure that our education system is enabling our youth to find jobs in the digital future. In addition to traditional skills such as tailoring and appliance repair, our vocational training centres must also adapt and focus on the new skills needed for the future, such as coding and programming. Technology can only help workers if they have the right expertise.

On the other hand, the digital revolution is also bringing amazing new technologies which have the power to change lives. Technologies that are empowering people with disabilities and can see, hear or speak for them, and technologies that are doubling as doctors and clinics in areas with inadequate healthcare. How is the public sector going to rise to these challenges and opportunities? How are we going to take advantage of this revolution to make our country more prosperous and to ensure that the disadvantaged can reap the dividends as well? It is time to start debating.

The writer is an executive at Microsoft Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2017