Future Slant: Technology and Work

Diana G. Oblinger and Joanne Dehoney

This is the third in a blog series describing five “metatrends,” drawn from a review of articles in industry IT press, that affect CIOs in all IT sectors:

·      Challenges of scale

·      Analytics

·      Technology and work

·      Business value

·      Competition and control

Each post in the Future Slant blog will describe one of these trends, suggesting implications for higher education.


Technology changes the nature of work. Over the past few decades, we have seen computers and robots replace human labor. Algorithms are used to approve routine mortgage applications; robots are used in manufacturing for both basic and highly specialized tasks. Technology can also be used to “extend the mind,” helping us remember, make decisions, and visualize situations. Further changes will result in digital assistants, 3D printing, smart devices, and robotics.

The human labor market is evolving as a result of technology. In “Dancing with Robots: Human Skills for Computerized Work,” Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane write: “Computers have changed the jobs that are available, the skills those jobs require, and the wages the jobs pay. . . . Computers have specific limitations compared to the human mind. Computers are fast, accurate, and fairly rigid. Human brains are slower, subject to mistakes, and very flexible. . . . Human work will increasingly shift toward two kinds of tasks: solving problems for which standard operating procedures do not currently exist, and working with new information—acquiring it, making sense of it, communicating it to others. . . . Computerized work has increased the complexity of the foundational skills Americans need to thrive in a changing economy.”

Computers can substitute for human work. They can also complement human skills in carrying out a task more effectively than the skilled human could do without the technology. Accordingly, automation fueled by technology will influence technology itself as well as other operations, rebalancing investments in personnel and technology across the enterprise.

The social web is also driving shifts in work patterns. According to the Institute of Directors’ Future of Technology Report (2013): “The social component of the technological revolution cannot be underestimated. Indeed, the plethora of communication methods that are now so widely available and accessible have helped redraw social norms. . . . Improved social collaboration within or between companies . . . could translate into a 20 to 25 percent improvement in the productivity of knowledge workers.” In industry, according to Forrester Research, expectations for constant communication, product creation, customer support, marketing, and outreach are being transformed by “social,” with investments in corporate social collaboration platforms predicted to increase 61 percent each year up to 2016.

Technology enables fundamental changes in the work of teaching, research, and outreach. For example, integrated student success systems are making better use of data to improve advising. These systems potentially augment human capacity and improve decision making. Computational research and visualization are allowing scientists to address “grand challenges” in new ways. Crowdsourcing, citizen science, and makerspaces are allowing students and citizens to participate in research.

Technology also augments the human capacity to solve the unstructured problems that are so central to scholarship. The same tools that researchers use for generative scholarship, tools such as data visualization and remote instrumentation, can help students to gain new understandings and to contribute original insights to fields of study.

Finally, these changes also impact the kind of education that students need. Both K–12 and higher education must provide students with foundational skills in problem solving and communication—skills that computers don’t have.

The CIO might logically be viewed as the person who would most deeply understand the issues involved in how technology is changing the nature of work.

© 2014 Diana G. Oblinger and Joanne Dehoney. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0).