Race against the machine - now knowledge work is also changing

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 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)

OpenAI and the recently viral chatbot ChatGPT - in the course of the digital transformation, algorithms, database systems and artificial intelligence are increasingly taking over tasks that were previously performed by humans. What do these changes mean for employees? Peter Kels and Kai Dröge put it in perspective.

Our working and professional world is characterized by a high proportion of knowledge-generating, -integrating and -coordinating activities, which are referred to as "knowledge work". Put more simply, knowledge workers are people whose main asset is knowledge, from teachers to nurses, programmers to lawyers. Until a few years ago, knowledge work was always considered a relatively well-protected area from automation, since cognitive services are required that could hardly be handled by a machine in the past. However, this image is now increasingly cracking, and not just since OpenAI and the recently viral chatbot ChatGPT.

Beat Hauenstein: Peter Kels, you are the head of the project ’Knowledge Work in Digital Transformation’. You assume that serious changes in the professional competence and development requirements of knowledge workers are also to be expected. How are the professional identities and competence requirements of knowledge workers in Switzerland changing as a result of digitization?

Peter Kels :
Digitization as a global megatrend not only leads to new applications, service offerings or business processes, but also transforms industries, organizations and professions. As a result, established professional role perceptions, working methods and competence requirements are coming under pressure to change. Today’s working reality for many knowledge workers is characterized by strong time pressure when working on complex tasks and insufficient support from the employer in developing new competencies. In theory, digitization could help relieve knowledge workers of routine tasks and take some of the pressure ’out of the kettle’. In reality, however, digitization is often accompanied by increasing workload compression, e.g. due to increased expectations of real-time communication via a variety of digital channels. Our research shows that knowledge workers develop coping strategies to deal with the experienced incompatibility between work that is not bounded by boundaries, a lack of resources, and their own demands for a professional, meaningful, and self-determined exercise of their profession.

Beat Hauenstein: Are there any occupational fields in the field of knowledge work where job and skills profiles will change fundamentally and where the labor market and employability of knowledge workers will come under pressure?

Kai Dröge :
Some occupational fields have already been hit hard. For example, we interviewed journalists as part of the project. There, the digital media transformation of recent years has had truly disastrous consequences. Working conditions have become extremely precarious, and the mood in many editorial offices is bad. There is a huge brain drain from this area, and we are losing a lot of journalistic expertise and lifeblood in Switzerland. And now the AI-generated texts are coming as the next wave, so it’s not necessarily getting better.
Overall, however, it has to be said that hardly any professional field is actually exempt from this change. Even skilled knowledge work is no longer a safe haven where one is spared the effects of automation. However, digitization is also creating many new fields of business and activity. In addition, there is a shortage of skilled workers in many areas, and people are desperately needed. So there is definitely potential there.

Beat Hauenstein: What attitudes, skills and coping strategies do knowledge workers need to acquire in order to be able to deal with this transformation both professionally and personally?

Peter Kels :
In addition to the much-cited "digital skills," knowledge workers also need suitable resources and coping strategies so that they can take on the role of active co-creators of the digital transformation and their own professional biographies instead of falling by the wayside. Curiosity and openness, a spirit of experimentation, the ability to reflect, and proactive, self-determined career management are crucial individual resources for remaining employable and intellectually flexible in turbulent times without losing sight of one’s own values. In practice - as our research shows - this can also lead to the need for radical changes in career paths and professions, i.e. saying ’goodbye’ to one’s traditional profession.

Beat Hauenstein: What framework conditions and target group-specific counseling and support services help affected employees to remain fit for the labor market? What is the importance of companies and managers?

Kai Dröge:
In my view, three points are particularly important. First, we have to look at digitization holistically. This is not just about technical change, but about a new work culture, about ’new work’. A few computer courses are not enough. This culture has to be lived. It requires freedom for employees and the security of being able to leave the beaten path.
Secondly, it is important that companies become more open to unconventional career biographies, career changers, more colorful careers and life plans. We can’t preach a constant willingness to change to our employees, but the resulting resumes are always sorted out in the application process.
Thirdly and finally, we should not equate every skepticism on the part of employees toward digital change processes with stubbornness and a lack of willingness to change. Companies need a productive debate between those who euphorically welcome digital technologies and those who keep a cool head and critically assess the latest hype for its realistic opportunities.

Peter Kels and Kai Dröge, thank you very much for the interview.