Shaping the Future of Work in An Ever-Accelerating AI World

In this installment of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association (HBSHAA) Q&A series, Michael Wong speaks to Dr. Thomas Kochan, Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Emeritus Professor of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research (IWER), who offers three key insights on engaging with AI and other digital solutions as they continue to transform our working and everyday lives.

Michael Wong: During past digital transformation consulting assignments I’ve engaged in, a common observation was that about 10% of impacted employees would quit their jobs rather than engage via their employers’ well-intended retraining and retention efforts. Per exit interviews, it seemed that a driving force in their resignations was their feelings of a lack of control with such changes. With your 40+ years on MIT’s faculty, what has your research uncovered for why some employees take such dramatic career actions?

Dr. Thomas Kochan: As highlighted by World Economic Forum’s discussion of the “Top 10 Emerging Technologies,”1 it is clear how digital transformation has become such a driving force of change across so many aspects of our lives. The article mentioned that the “percentage of the global population aged 60 and over will nearly double, from 12 to 22 percent, between 2015 and 2050.” And so, while AI and other technologies provide exciting opportunities to address macro elements like changing demographics, research points to how workers indeed want a voice in how they engage with these new tools.

Our 2017 research findings uncovered a huge voice gap among the interviewed workers.2 And while compensation might be one factor, employees are demanding training and a more direct role in shaping how technology is used at their workplaces. The key take-away from our research was that the workforce was expecting their employers to enable them to provide input on evolving trends like technical disruption, which impact their daily lives. The MIT findings support your observations that when employees felt a loss of control, they would seek different opportunities including early retirement and/or severance packages.

Moreover, even when input was requested, often it was too late. The good news is that some firms took a different path which produced positive results. At MIT, we have performed extensive research in this area with entities like Kaiser Permanente who engaged their employees at the front end of planning for digital transformation in what they called their “next generation” outpatient clinics. Technology experts, physicians, nurses, and other front-line staff totally redesigned the flow of patients through their appointments and visits to these clinics; aided by extensive use of laptops, kiosks, visual tracking and displays to keep patients and staff informed on each step of the care process and expanded use of telemedicine (even before the arrival of the COVID pandemic). Kaiser Permanente’s executives trusted that their own employees had the potential to be directly involved in both the design of the new digital tools and in changing work practices to make best use of them. While they still had their day jobs to do, time was carved out so that they could participate in train-the-trainer sessions as they had the experience and credibility among their peer groups.

With Fortune’s 2021 top-three Most Admired Companies all being tech firms3 and their role in continuing to accelerate AI and other digital solutions in our everyday lives, what can an individual realistically do to have a voice in how they engage with new tech tools, operate with evolving new processes, and perhaps most importantly interact with other people?

First, employees need to raise their hands and ask how they can get involved. While account reps should not suddenly think that they should be pivoting 50% of their time from closing sales to becoming the new solution architects for the firm, they can carve out slivers of time to engage in areas like providing input during the user-design phase. And their value will be contributing ideas that solve realistic pain points for the organization like increasing productivity or enhancing job safety in manufacturing plants. So perhaps offer to participate in a human-center design stage.

Second, with many transformations failing at Fortune 500s, employees should provide ideas on how new technologies can be effectively and efficiently deployed in current state processes. Note, context is important since it is one thing if a C-suite executive has been hired, and empowered by the CEO and/or Board, to introduce disruptive change. It is a very different context if you are a recent college hire with great ideas but limited understanding of the organization’s capacity for change. Figure out where you can realistically introduce new ideas that can gain some traction. And it is important for you to keep up to date on how technologies and work processes are changing. One way to do so might be to sign up for our periodic updates from our MIT Good Companies-Good Jobs newsletter.

Finally, be willing to admit what you know and perhaps more importantly what you don’t know about these accelerating tech changes. During my 40+ years at MIT, one observation has been how several C-suite officers thought that only their CIOs and outside consultants could grasp this subject matter. For these executives, it will be a major mind-shift for them to understand how such knowledge is not just held by a select few, but rather across a broader population. Smarter C-Suite officers, like those at Kaiser Permanente, have learned to trust that others including front-line employees, clients, and unions, can provide value for their digital transformations.

Dr. Thomas Kochan is the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Professor Kochan also serves on the faculty of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research. He focuses on the need to update America’s work and employment policies, institutions, and practices to catch up with a changing workforce and economy.

Michael Wong is an Emeritus Board Member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.

Notes

1. DiChristina, Mariette, Meyerson, Bernard, “These are the top 10 emerging technologies of 2021”, World Economic Forum, November 16, 2021.

2. Kochan Thomas, Yang, Duany, Kimball William, and Kelly, Erin L., “Worker voice in America: Is there a gap between what workers expect and what they experience?” ILR Review, 72, 2, January 2019, 1-36.

3. Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft are the top-three Fortune Most Admired Companies for 2021. https://fortune.com/worlds-most-admired-companies/2021/search/?ordering=asc