My personal choice for ugliest term of the year: “digitise away”.

Even in a world where machines are able to learn, highly specialised human knowledge has inestimable value. Fears that machines will take away work from people are groundless. This leaves the antagonism of humans and machines.

The keyword in business right now is “Industry 4.0”, which covers all the developments that make possible networked information technologies which are able to learn and – at least partly – act autonomously. There are already industrial productions where individual customer desires are stored on chips which are then passed to robots. The robots set to work directly, transporting aluminium components, cutting them exactly into modules and performing other more elaborate manufacturing processes.

Interestingly, the human “colleagues” develop a relationship to the devices, giving them names and being particularly happy that the physical hard labour is being handled by the robots. A German businessman recently described in an interview what the change means: “We’re a completely new company. Incoming orders, production and delivery are automated. People take over control functions or do highly specialised work on maintaining and managing the robots.”

Robots instead of jobs

This euphoria at making the world a better place for production with the help of information technology is (as so often) countered by a social debate which is curious – to put it mildly. This is driven by the fear that much of the human workforce will compete with robots in future for jobs – and will naturally lose, since robots neither demand wage increases nor submit leave applications.

Another concern is that companies will become structurally less human, because senior management in future will be largely occupied by managing the machines. Employees and even social conventions will be simply “digitised away”.

You might dismiss this as simply the typical German cautious and fearful attitude to something new. An attitude which, in passing, also made a major contribution to the success of the German model after WW II. However, the scepticism that has met “Industry 4.0” in the current debate seems to have widely overshot the mark – which is why “digitise away” with its luddite connotations is the ugliest term of the year, in my personal opinion.

If we see something new as primarily bad and negative, if we want to hold on to what we have, and if we block the energy for new ideas and implementation of megatrends, we will run into difficulties in the future. If we give free rein to our unjustified fears and oppose advancing technology and digitisation, I firmly believe we will miss great opportunities. In the competition between economies, Germany will be left behind, digitisation of industry will happen where change is welcomed with open arms.

The chain starts with people 

My plea for digitisation should not be mistaken for blind faith in technology – quite the reverse. I believe that the antagonism between humans and machines will continue to shape social development, and that ultimately humans will come up better off, as they have in earlier innovation cycles. However powerful the algorithms may get, the chain still starts with humans as the ones setting the goals.

But how should people deal concretely with the situation where a wide range of activities which people are currently essential for will soon be able to be carried out by robots capable of learning.

A bundle of different strategies should prove helpful. Employees can cooperate actively in digitisation, ensuring that they continue to be at the start of the chain. Another approach would be increased specialisation – even in a world of machines capable of learning, highly specialised human knowledge is invaluable. Naturally, people should be trying in any case to see more in their activities than carrying out predetermined process steps, and should try to develop a deeper understanding and the ability to act proactively – this would be the third strategy.

Learn from America?

Thinking in this way turns threatening scenarios into opportunities. Perhaps we should adopt a little more of the American attitude – at least as we knew it before Trump’s election – of first seeing the possibilities of an innovation, and accepting it and making it your own. Instead, I see what is often dismissed as a “German” mentality of first thinking of the dangers and risks of an innovation and putting it aside for the time being. A little more risk acceptance would benefit the debate about “Industry 4.0”, and that should go for market research itself – allowing openness, accepting developments and taking a positive attitude. Because market research is also having to come to terms with digitisation.

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The article appeared on 14 December 2016 in Planung&Analyse.

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