Are You About to be “Algo’d”—replaced by an algorithm? Part 1.


Algo’d (verb) al· go.d | \ ˈal-gə-ˌdid

Definition of Algo’d

1: a procedure for converting a human activity (i.e. work) to an automated process that can be performed by some type of computer-driven equipment or device guided in its operation by mathematical algorithms

2: solving an operational task in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation

3: a step-by-step procedure for performing a task to a­­­ccomplishing some end

Yeah, Says Who?

One of the major trends, blending demographic changes with technology advances, is the onward march towards greater automation in our economy. That’s a fancy way of saying, “The robots are coming.” And they are not just that warm, fuzzy image we have of R2D2.

If you step back and look at the deeper picture, this trend is really about the replacement of human labor in all kinds of activities from manufacturing to white-collar knowledge work to housekeeping. What started in the late 1970’s as “office automation” is now starting to reach massive proportions. Similarly, robotic welding and other manufacturing operations began roughly 60 years ago and now are mainstays in mass-production facilities, followed closely by robotic “pick-and-pack” operations in warehousing.

So, how big is this trend? Depends on whom you ask. There are a number of reliable sources, but all estimates are based on assumptions of progress on the technology side. The Institute for the Future thinks that any job that pays in the $20-30k range is subject to robotization.

Gartner Research thinks that:

Gartner predicts one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025," said Sondergaard. "New digital businesses require less labor; machines will be making sense of data faster than humans can."  

We think a reasonable estimate would be 30% of the current US workforce could be replaced by these technologies in the next 5 years. And that is not just factory workers as we usually think. It extends into the “back office”—knowledge workers in banking, insurance, and medicine, customer service representatives, and many others. Admittedly the tactical economics of this replacement technology are still being debated. But, given the likely onset of a significant recession, the slope in technology adoption curve will change from a linear progression to a curvilinear one—a hockey stick. Tell us when the recession hits and we’ll tell you when this trend will take off.

So to sum up, the scope of this labor market evolution, here is a quote from the Harvard Business Review:

“Left behind may be as many as 40 million citizens of no economic value in the U.S alone. The dislocations will be profound.”


Are You a Target?

Consider the work that you do. Ask yourself, honestly, if 50% or more of that work includes tasks that:

  • Are repetitive?

  • Operates under decision rules that are known or discoverable or discoverable?

  • Has decision points that can be expressed in symbolic logic?

If you answered “Yes”, you are an ALGO target. Let us illustrate this with a story. At one time, Charlie was a consultant helping companies design workplaces and configure real estate. The most common question was, “how much real estate do we need?” We’d observed people at work, asking them what they did, and have them demonstrate that to us[2]. The bottom line in study after study was you need about one third less space than you have because those people can be placed by automatons—in other words, “Algo them out.” 

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch …

Sound far-fetched? Let’s see what we got in the past few years: Robot house vacuums. Autonomous vehicles. Automated sushi makers in Japan. Digital teachers’ assistants in California. The list is only limited by your imagination.

So, what do you do? First and foremost, get out of denial. We like to say that the future bus is rumblin’ down the road headed in your direction. You have a choice: Either jump on that bus and take hold of the wheel, or stand there and get run over by it. In other words, your choice is: Create your future, or be controlled by the future.

Charlie spent decades as a teacher, mentor, counsellor and consultant helping people get ahead of the technology adoption curve, beginning back in the 70’s when “word processors” began replacing the typing pool. Remember the typing pool? Secretaries who took dictation and wrote in short hand?

There isn’t a set formula about what to do because we are all different, and human diversity is almost limitless. Generally, you need to start TODAY spending 20% of your time getting ready to jump on that bus and drive your own future.

  1. Admit it’s coming. Stop hiding and get ready to change. Be your own leader: you are the captain of your own ship. Don’t go down the hall whining to HR. Ask your manager for a plan? They’re not likely to help because middle managers will be the first group to walk the ALGO plank. [That’s a whole other piece.]

  2. Get straight with just what is your true core purpose. Why are you on this planet? Are you a “doer”, a “creator”, a “helper” or what? Just what is your “why of whys?” This is a hard task. It took me three years of concentrated work to discover that, at my core, I’m a teacher. Once I got that figured out, the rest was relatively easy.

  3. Play to your strengths. What are the five things that you just naturally do better than most others? Conversely, what are the five that you should NOT do? Would you want a doctor who wasn’t empathic? An airplane pilot who wasn’t good with keeping track of details?

  4. What role do you want to play on the stage of life? Do you want to be a leader of others with vision? Or, an organizer who has objectives? Or, perhaps, a creative catalyst that has curiosity? That’s just a start.

What’s the Plan, Stan?

We’re getting the evil eye from the copy editor ALGO, so we’d better wrap this up. Now you have the start of a purpose statement, a list of personal, unique strengths, and a role description.

You are ready to jump start your future, right now. So, when the truck from Acme ALGO rolls up to the back door of your company, you’re out the front door into the self-driving Uber and off to meet with your talent agent.

In the words of John F. Kennedy:

“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”

Welcome to the new now. You are travelling to the end and beyond of the postindustrial line… where do you choose to go and how?