Commentary by John O'Leary


John O'Leary, Head of State and Local Government research for the Deloitte Center for Government Insights

Deloitte logoThe concern of many is that robots will take away our jobs. The reality is that if we can embrace a new vision of the Future of Work, we will create a future made brighter by technology. Our region is particularly well positioned to benefit from the tech revolution, but to do so will mean rethinking how firms – from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies—source and manage human talent.

Technologies such as artificial intelligence, 3-D printing, and virtual reality are enabling machines to do more of the work in producing services and products. The aspect of this change that gets the big headlines, of course, is the question of headcount. While technology will replace some jobs that largely encompass repetitive tasks, technology also is creating new opportunities for workers.

Consider the case of ATM machines. In 1980, as ATMs were just being introduced in earnest, there were roughly 500,000 bank tellers in America. Twenty years later, after 400,000 ATMs had been installed, there weren’t fewer bank tellers—there were more, as banks opened more branches and introduced more services. This “automation paradox” helps explain why we experience very low unemployment despite increasing technology.

Critically, the Future of Work should prompt companies to rethink how they manage their human talent. With machines doing the mundane work, humans increasingly will do the tasks that require creativity, collaboration, and the tapping of specialized skills. There will be a critical need to not only secure, develop and continuously re-educate internal talent, but also the ability to find, in quick-strike fashion, the discrete capability needed to move a project forward, whether related to algorithms, data analytics, blockchain, and so forth. Technology will also enable remote work, allowing this talent to come from anywhere. As noted by a recent Capital H Blog by Deloitte’s human capital practice, “the best talent may no longer be where companies exist, meaning that managing a more broadly dispersed workforce will be a competitive differentiator.”

This may be good news for Massachusetts’ high-tech community. While it will certainly face its share of challenges, they nevertheless may be ahead of other types of companies in developing a more collaborative and virtual workforce. With a rich history in education and tech innovation, Massachusetts may have fewer cultural barriers in how workers share knowledge, and how ideas flow up, down and across the organization. Whether formally or informally, many Massachusetts companies—tech companies in particular—are already in a mode of continuous learning and quite adept at tapping into “gig” workers with specialized skills.
In the year ahead, look for Massachusetts’ companies to continue to innovate their management strategies, especially around how they integrate the human workforce with new cognitive technologies. As our machines grow smarter, the people who use them must grow smarter as well—which means investing in people. Such strategies could feature the use of people analytics, career path development, learning and development, even community involvement. New approaches that encourage an entrepreneurial thinking way of how things get done while adding the structure, protocols and documentation that ready organizations for new levels of maturity.

As Future of Work takes hold in the broader economy, there may be a distinct opportunity for Massachusetts’ technology companies to not only be known for creating amazing new products and services, but also for how to work with people.

Innovation, after all, doesn’t just involve technology. It means unleashing human talent to take advantage of the amazing new tools that are being developed here in Massachusetts every day.

John O’Leary heads up State and Local Government research for the Deloitte Center for Government Insights. John has served in several senior leadership roles for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, including Chief Human Resource Officer. He was a distinguished research fellow with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is the co-author of the best-selling book “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government.”  John can be found at

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