What does the future of digital technology look like?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Jan Veldsink has more than 25 years of experience in digital technology. He has a passion for technology and people, and his areas of expertise include artificial intelligence (AI), intelligent systems, robotics, cyber security, and organisational and group dynamics.

As a technical researcher and long-time lecturer at Nyenrode Business University, he teaches core classes and leads student teams in identifying new AI application areas. As a speaker, senior advisor, trainer and coach, his mission is to help teams and organisations develop a safe and sustainable environment.

Drawing on your extensive experience, what does the future of digital technology look like? How are developments in this field revolutionising how we live and work?

Artificial intelligence, learning algorithms and big data are transforming every aspect of our society and business. In the coming years, these advanced systems will become more user-friendly without losing their complexity. While there are many expert IT specialists who are capable of building these systems, we must bring them to such a level that business analysts can operate AI systems like they operate a car, where the deep technology is hidden.

The most cited examples are Tesla and Google’s self-driving cars. In both cases, the user commands powerful AI in the form of optical recognition and reasoning without knowing that she is driving an advanced AI machine. Similarly, in precision agriculture, a farmer may still need to water his crops but he relies on drones, infrared maps and other imaging technologies to tell him where to put it.

Some online services, like making a dinner reservation or booking a cottage for your summer holiday, have become so commonplace that we’re not even aware of the advanced technologies powering them. These companies are continually collecting data and learning our preferences so they can display the information we want to see.

In every sector of our society and business, robotics and AI will play an increasingly significant role. Consequently, we will see a rise in multidisciplinary employees and teams while there will be less employability for people with traditional business and coding skills. As we make this shift, we will need to develop new ways of working and leading.

As digital technology transforms the culture and structure of organisations, what changes can we expect to see in the workplace?

We are coming into a new era. For the first time, teams are spanning three generations, and employees ranging from their 20s to their 60s must function together. This phenomenon requires us to consider new dynamics, new management approaches and new ways of organising teams.

According to the 21st century skills framework, the youngest generation tends to be more creative and outspoken about issues related to their work, and this is dramatically changing management. For example, managers can no longer assign tasks or direct employees to work without explanation. Instead, managers need to consider the skills and competences of the individuals on their teams and allow them to speak up and take initiative.

There needs to be a psychologically safe environment for people to learn, make mistakes, fail and still come back to the conversation. We are shifting towards self-organising teams in which a manager’s primary role is to enable her team members.

This change is disruptive, and it is already happening across many sectors. In response, many organisations are experimenting with team dynamics. Flexible and remote working arrangements are becoming more common. Recruitment is no longer focused on skills, but on competences and personality: Does this person fit within my team? Can she adapt to new ways of working and new technologies?

At the same time, employees must consider whether an organisation offers the right culture and resources. More and more, employment is becoming a two-sided dialogue.

How does this fast pace of technological development affect how we think about and approach learning and development?

When I studied, we learned from books and specialists. Now, I can learn from YouTube tutorials or crowd-source solutions to my problems. Digitalisation is happening fast, and the education system must change along with it because book-teaching cannot prepare people for the next 20 years.

In the wake of these changes, we need to restructure our approach to education. Learning must be an attitude and a competence: people have to learn how to learn. We need to encourage a culture of curiosity and teach people how to find the resources they need to continually develop.

As we change the education system, we need invite in all kinds of people. Diversity in gender, culture, race and religion is critical to forming effective teams. When we combine different ways of approaching problems, we are better equipped to meet the challenges that lie ahead.