11/27/2017 | Chuck Leddy

Ben Pring is an author and widely-recognized expert on the future of work. He is co-director of the Center for the Future of Work, which researches how work is changing due to technologies like automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, as well as new ways of working such as the gig economy. Pring is also co-author of "What To Do When Machines Do Everything: How to Get Ahead in a World of AI, Algorithms, Bots and Big Data," a fascinating look at the future workplace. The NCMM recently caught up with Pring to discuss technology trends and how they’re changing the way middle market companies work today and tomorrow.

Many middle market companies are in the manufacturing sector. How are automation, AI and other technologies like 3D-printing transforming U.S. manufacturing?

Pring: Massively. These technologies could lead to a renaissance of manufacturing in the United States. Over the last 30, 40 years, U.S. manufacturers have pursued offshoring, sending jobs to cheaper locations abroad to reduce their labor costs. But with advances in smart technology and the growth of automation in the manufacturing sector, a lot of those jobs are now coming back to the United States. It’s onshoring. That said, the type of work coming back to the U.S. won't be the same as the work that left 30 years ago. 

There will be new U.S. jobs because machines, even though they’re getting smarter, can't do everything by themselves. They need maintenance, they need deployment, they need integration, they need a whole range of things done. If we manage these changes smartly, it's going to be very positive for the U.S. economy and U.S. job growth in the coming years.

What human skills will continue to be relevant in the future middle market workplace? 

Pring: You can think about these human skills in terms of the three C’s, which are coaching, caring, and connecting. New AI-based solutions blend technology and people, and are helping coach people to get better at what they’re doing. Look at the healthcare space. You put together sensors and wearable devices that track our health in order to make people healthier. People don't want technology for technology’s sake alone. That same coaching, with a blending of technology and people, can work to better manage the performance of middle market employees, for example. 

Caring jobs in spaces like healthcare are another focus, and some of those are going to be very technology-centric, while others are going to be very light with technology. Then there’s connecting, the third C. There’s going to be lots of jobs in helping people and machines work together. We are going to be connecting the physical world, the world we live in, to the virtual world and managing that new kind of space. Also in terms of connecting, we’ll need to manage all our data ethically, because companies that do so will be winners and those that don’t will lose. 

What are the “systems of intelligence” you describe in your book, and how are they changing the way middle market companies work?

Pring: These systems are AI embedded into all sorts of software to take that software to the next level of performance. The software is built on next generation cloud infrastructure. It's based on big data infrastructure analytics. It's based on this next generation of machine alignment. But it also, and very importantly, involves people too, because these are very sophisticated decision support systems that need human input. They help businesses and people make better decisions. They don't tell you exactly what to do. Machines and systems are going to be tools that smart people and smart middle market companies use to do their work better. 

How can middle market companies harness their data to create competitive advantage? 

Pring: They should start by instrumenting all of the things they can within whatever it is they do, putting sensors on physical equipment so that they can get into the world of predictive maintenance. By doing so, they can collect data on how their physical environment is operating. They can see, for instance, if they’re wasting money on heating or cooling. They can collect much more data on employee performance. What does all this data tell you?  The very simple steps, not expensive steps that middle market companies can take to become data driven. That's one of the big things that we think is the future, driving a business from data rather than just using your gut instincts and hunches to make decisions. Having the capacity to collect data is the beginning of that.

You say in the book that established middle market companies have advantages over potential start-ups who are trying to disrupt their space. How so?

Pring: So much of the narrative at the moment is around the tech startups, the companies from Silicon Valley that are supposedly going to take over the world. If you are an established company, however, you already have customer relationships and, in a production world, you have machinery which can provide data about what's going on. The start-up companies, the new tech companies, don’t really have customers. They don't really have any physical items that they can collect data from. A bank or an airline or any middle market company has incredible data from which to uncover those stories buried in that data: this is going to give them an advantage over the smaller companies. Having legacy here can be an edge.

Are there any specific steps that middle market companies might take to disrupt themselves before new entrants/start-ups do the disrupting? 

Pring: This comes down to skills more than technology. It comes down to people's skills. The real issue for middle market businesses is bringing in people who understand data, people who understand the power of computing, people who understand sensors, people who understand IoT (Internet of Things) technologies and can help you manage them. If you can't get the next wave of talent you need, it's going to be a rough road ahead. Hiring people in those areas is very, very difficult, but that's really the end game, what middle market companies need to do to thrive today and in the future. 

Is there anything else that you’d like to tell middle market leaders about getting ahead in this emerging world of robots, AI, bots, etc? 

Pring: That the robots aren't coming, the robots are already here.

You can stick your head in the sand, you can ignore this, you can pretend this isn't happening, but ultimately that's not really a business model that's sustainable. There are going to be negatives to this, yes. It’s hard to deny them, but at the same time, there’s going to be a lot of upside to technological trends. It's up to middle market business leaders to really grapple with this right now, to make sure they can leverage the upside and not get swamped by the down side.

Listen to "Ben Pring on The Future Middle Market Workplace" on Spreaker.