Blog: Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Have you ever wondered whether your job will still exist 10 years from now? If you haven’t, then this post may give you something to think about.

Exploding numbers

Computing power has been increasing exponentially for decades, in line with Moore’s Law, but to those of us who have used computers since the 1980s, the process has felt relatively smooth. However, the strange thing about exponential growth is that things change gradually until the numbers suddenly explode. Here’s a simple example: you start with one euro and double it every day. After two weeks you still have only 512 euros, but after just two more weeks, you suddenly have many, many millions.

Our smartphones pack more power into a tiny device than a bulky machine did a few years ago. That’s amazing, but it’s nothing compared to what’s about to happen. According to current trends, the computational power that will be available in just few years will be mind-blowing. And that will be in addition to vast improvements in software architecture – and then you begin to understand why sci-fi movie staples like self-driving cars and computers that can interpret the nuances of natural language are quickly becoming reality.

Redundant professions

While all of this is happening, we are living in an economic conundrum: stagnant wages and an economic recovery that doesn’t seem to be creating many more jobs. Some commentators are interpreting this as a sign of things to come: intelligent machines are taking over jobs that once gave livelihoods to millions. Previous technological revolutions displaced workers but ultimately helped create more jobs and increased quality of life. This time around, it is difficult to be optimistic.

Experts argue that high-skilled professions are likely to become redundant and replaced by technology in the next few years, including auditors, technical writers and radiologists. Marketers may feel that their profession is better protected from this technological onslaught than others. Indeed, marketers’ skills are harder to automate or replace than those of other business functions, such as accounting, but the writing is on the wall.

Upgrading skills

A combination of technology and outsourcing has already reduced the numbers of some low-end marketing jobs like customer service, but this is just the start. Next it’ll be retail salespeople and, after that, it’ll be more skilled and better paid workers whose jobs disappear. Clients won’t commission focus groups when machine learning algorithms can capture market sentiment and customer preferences precisely and in real time using big data. New product development has already moved outward with the new open innovation models, and continuing improvements in IT will surely replace many marketers involved in the generation and selection of ideas. Increasingly, we’ll see algorithms take over middle management jobs in areas including design, category management and pricing, leading to a large reduction in the number of available marketing-related positions. This is all pretty depressing if you take the perspective of the people who will lose their jobs, so let’s try to stay positive and guess which kinds of jobs are going to stay – and what new ones will be created.

Creativity and complexity

Paradoxically, machines may have a hard time making confident predictions in highly unstable markets, so perhaps the turbulence brought about by technology in many industries will be the reason why humans may still be employed in reasonably large numbers, at least for the time being. More generally, the chances a person will be needed increase with the level of creativity required from the task, and the complexity of the business context. Basically, the harder it is to break down a job into simpler and independent tasks, or to translate its output into clearly specified numerical quantities, the harder it will be to automate it. For example, as far as agency employment goes, copywriting positions look safer than media planning ones – even though copywriting is surely vulnerable too.

In terms of new jobs, the trend is clear. Young professionals with the skills to deploy advanced analytics and intelligent software, as well as the vision to know what to do with them, will thrive. As academic director of our MSc programme in Marketing Management, I am giving much thought to the future employability of our students and this year we are introducing a new specialization track called “Digital Strategy and Analytics”, with courses like “Marketing Analytics”, “Neuromarketing”, and “Big Data Analytics for Marketing Insight”.

I think universities are going to play a vital role in this turbulent transition period by offering people the possibility to upgrade their skillset; for example, through short open-enrolment executive education programmes such as those that RSM already provides. And, even more importantly, by training students who can think critically. If you live in a time when tools and truths have limited shelf life, what you know is less important than the way you think. The how becomes less important than the why.

Stefano Puntoni

Former Professor of Marketing

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