By Jane Alexander, Managing Editor
How did you spend the past holiday season? I took some time to read and ponder a recent series of related articles and posts about the impact of automation on the human workforce by Claire Cain Miller, in “The Upshot” section of The New York Times. But that material was just the tip of an iceberg.
I also read most of the reader comments associated with those articles and posts, including (as of Tuesday, Jan. 3), the 550 regarding Miller’s feature published on Dec. 21, 2016. Titled “The Long-Term Jobs Killer is Not China. It’s Automation,” the piece seemed to have touched a lot of nerves. In it, among other things, the writer described the situations of two individuals, who, after losing their jobs to automation, have been unable to find new work in industry.
To her credit, the woman Miller quoted (who had actually lost two jobs as a result of automation) eventually enrolled in a computer class at Goodwill to improve her job prospects. For some reason, her strategy didn’t work. As she explained, “The 20- and 30-year-olds are more up to date on that stuff than we are because we didn’t have that when we were growing up.” She’s now on disability and living in a housing project.
The gentleman that Miller referenced, a former supervisor at an aluminum-extrusion operation (for a decade), lost his job to a robot about five years ago. Since then, he’s been scraping by with odd jobs. Unfortunately, as the article noted, despite the fact that many new factory jobs require technical skills, this person doesn’t own a computer and doesn’t want to.
These stories with their element of hopelessness and giving up touched my heart — greatly. Been there. Done that. Or, at least, fell into a similar, uncomfortable hole, from which I had to dig myself out. Twice. Thus, I line up with “Oscar,” another reader of Miller’s job-killer article, who posted the following comment: “The world changes. You change with it or get left behind. This has been true since long before we had robots and computers to worry about.”
Which gets me to thinking about something else I did during the holidays: I spent time on amazon.com ordering copies of the book Frugal Innovation, by Navi Radjou and Jaideep Prabhus (2016, Economist Books, London), for several of my loved ones (old and not so old). I hope it gets them thinking as well — outside the box and elsewhere.
This 2016 CIM Management Book of the Year is full of insight, backed by case studies from developing countries on how, when resources are limited, businesses and individuals can turn adversity into success by tapping into the most abundant of all resources: human ingenuity. (In his Ted Talk on creative problem solving in the face of extreme limits, author Navi Radjou likens this ability to alchemy, i.e., turning something of little or no value into something of great value. And what’s not to like about that?)
Congratulations if you’ve received or read this book and/or if your own organization is already leveraging the management technique of frugal innovation (or “jugaad,” the Hindi term for an improvised solution born from ingenuity and cleverness). To paraphrase “Oscar,” the commenter on the previously referenced article from The New York Times, the world changes. We can change with it or be left behind.
I look forward to hearing about the experiences (make that successes) of all you never-give-up alchemists out there. MT