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Putting People at the Heart of the Internet of Things

Date Posted: 
Wed, 10/31/2018
Peter Hirst, Associate Dean for Executive Education at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a founding board member of the IoT Talent Consortium.

With new life-altering technologies bursting on the scene seemingly every week, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and lose track of the fact that we humans are still in control (for now, anyway). It is up to us to take advantage of the business and societal implications of emerging technologies in ways that will benefit our humanity, not diminish its value. This notion was brought to stark relief in a recent meeting of the Internet of Things Talent Consortium at the New York Academy of Sciences in Manhattan.

From its inception in 2015, the work of the Consortium focused primarily on the scarcity of technical talent needed to power the Internet of Things. This topic is still top of mind for both industry and academia. However, this year’s meeting made it distinctly clear that no matter how technologically driven a company may be, its future success still also depends on the management, leadership, soft skills, and teamwork abilities of its humans. Being able to work across disciplines and fields, understanding the business even more around regulation and the questions of security and privacy—these capabilities are just as important as purely technical expertise. The only thing that’s changing is that those issues are becoming even more critical, according to the presenters and delegates who attended this very human, face-to-face meeting.

Widespread automation anxiety

With dark factories (no human labor to illuminate), robotic caregiving, AI-based legal and medical work, and more on the horizon, people will be displaced and need to be retrained or find new and, hopefully, better careers. Not surprisingly, many people are concerned about employment in what some are calling the 4th Industrial Revolution. An extensive 2017 report by Pew Research Center found that “around three-quarters of Americans expect increased inequality between rich and poor if machines can do many human jobs; just one-quarter think the economy would create many new, better-paying jobs for humans.”

Considering this, it is encouraging to know that a lot of leaders, particularly those in industry, are talking about the significant changes they are anticipating as well as the jobs that are being created—and very much needed— that will require very human skills and capabilities. These new roles may be complemented but are less likely to be outright replaced by machines and computers. For example, at the Consortium’s meeting, we heard an illuminating presentation on the Future of Skills by Leah Jewel, Managing Director of Employability Solutions at Pearson, the global publishing company and one of the founders of the Talent Consortium. Pearson teamed up with the U.K.-based non-profit Nesta and The Oxford Martin School, a research center at the University of Oxford, to create an interactive tool that allows you to see the skills you’ll need in 2030 to continue doing well in your current occupation. Rockwell Automation’s team shared insights from their research into the future of manufacturing jobs and examples of training and upskilling initiatives at the company, like the Veterans Training Program that prepares veterans for advanced manufacturing jobs.

Major industry players are concerned about these issues, both from the needs of their business but also in terms of the wider societal implications, and they are being thoughtful and proactive in that regard. These industry players are trying to figure out how they can partner with academia and education institutions to meet their future workforce needs. This inquiry raises the question, to what extent is that appropriate or necessary?

Certainly, there is room, if you are in academia and education, to say that meeting the future workforce needs of the country and the world is an important aspect of most, if not all, education institutions.  But it’s not the only one. Short of turning into a skilled-worker training mill, what other initiatives can academic institutions take to influence the future of work in positive ways?

What MIT is doing to brighten the future of work

As one of the world’s leading science and technology institutions, MIT takes this issue very seriously. We have always looked for ways to contribute to the wellbeing of society, not only to the advancement of technology. For example, the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) explores the future of work in the context of pervasive digital transformation. In collaboration with MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), IDE organizes an annual conference called AI and the Future of Work Congress, where academics, executives, and policy makers discuss approaches for a better future for humans in the age of AI. The IDE team of researchers is led by renowned thought leaders in the digital economy Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee, Sinan Aral, and Sandy Pentland, among others—all of whom are frequent instructors in our executive education programs.

Our MIT Sloan Executive Education programs and courses are designed to help business leaders make sense of IoT and other emerging tech trends and their implications, both economic and societal. George Westerman, Principal Research Scientist at MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy, and Faculty Director for Workplace Learning at MIT Jameel World Education Lab, shared our teaching approach with the IoT Talent Consortium using the example of a program he leads. Called Internet of Things: Business Implications and Opportunities, this six-week online course explores the Internet of Things not as a technology but as a transformation enabler. With a nod to Moore’s Law about the rapid pace of technological change, Westerman introduced us to his own “George’s Law” positing that “technology changes quickly, but organizations change much more slowly.” In other words, the real challenge is not technology, but leadership. “You need to help your people understand that the coordination and control enabled by IoT means you can—and should—do business very differently,” he says. To that end, all our technology-themed programs (like the ones below, to name just a few) help business leaders see the broader implications of technology for their organizations:

On the subject of “holistic thinking,” in early 2018, MIT President Rafael Reif commissioned MIT Work of the Future, an Institute-wide blue-ribbon task force with extensive industry engagement, charged with answering three crucial questions:

1. How are emerging technologies transforming the nature of human work and the set of skills that enable humans to thrive in the digital economy?

2. How can we shape and catalyze technological innovation to complement and augment human potential?

3. How can our civic institutions ensure that the gains from tehse emerging innovations contribute to equality of opportunity, social inclusion, and shared prosperity?

We can surely expect MIT to remain not only at the forefront of the technological developments that drive and enable the Internet of Things and the wider digital revolution, but to also help lead the conversations and decisions that need to be happening now, and into the future. This is responsible leadership in action.

Putting our (human) heads together

It is an interesting paradox that people are simultaneously hopeful about the potential of full-scale automation, and still very much struggling with the increasing pace of change and what that means for the skills they need. At the IoT Talent Consortium meeting, everyone seemed to agree that the shifts in mindset and, in many cases, the organizational culture and societal values, are struggling to keep up as well. There remains a lot of speculation about what it mean when the true digital natives, so-called, are entering not only the customer base but also the workforce. As the IoT moves from phenomenal to inevitable, more nuanced questions arise. Of the many sources of nervousness, if not full-blown pessimism, are the issues of security, safety and integrity, and their implications. Are we really ready to deal confidently and competently with all this? Watching our daily news feeds, one has to wonder!

These and myriad other tough questions need to be tackled methodically and systemically. That’s why groups like the IoT Talent Consortium are key to solving these challenges. An interesting observation that many people at the meeting shared was that, even here, we were talking about being connected and online, but we all recognized and appreciated the value and importance of getting together in person to explore the topics, share knowledge and experience, and collaborate. We are already planning the next in-person IoT Talent Consortium members meeting, which will be hosted by Rockwell Automation at their headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in May 2019, and will provide a fantastic opportunity to see firsthand the invention of the future of manufacturing.

If you are concerned and interested in these issues and would like to join a unique industry-academia collaboration focused on building partnerships and solutions around these challenges, read more about the IoT Talent Consortium’s membership opportunities.

Peter Hirst is Associate Dean for Executive Education at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a founding board member of the IoT Talent Consortium.

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