Only the ethical need apply

In the heavily automated workplace of the future, a keen sense of right and wrong will become a highly valued job skill.

The "great global brain drain" is how futurist Richard Samson describes it. As the century progresses, he predicts, more and more jobs will be sucked up by technology and sophisticated computers, forcing humans to hone skills machines can't duplicate - at least not yet.

Qualities such as ethical judgment, compassion, intuition, responsibility, and creativity will be what stand out in an automated world.

With ethics issues spiking into the news almost weekly, the idea of a work world in which individual ethical acumen is viewed as an essential job skill is far from outlandish. The signs are already here.

Wall Street is toying with the idea of creating an ethical code of conduct. CEOs are getting fired for unethical behavior, even when it doesn't damage the company's bottom line.

At Boeing, former CEO Harry Stonecipher was hired with a specific mandate to strengthen company ethics - and then was fired when his personal ethical code fell short.

What Mr. Samson suggests is that this focus on ethics will intensify as technology takes up more of the routine work tasks. Signs of "off-peopling" - his shorthand for human workers being replaced by computers - are widespread.

Software systems help you do your own check-out at the supermarket and your own check-in at the airline counter. Virtual attendants answer many customer-service phones. Internet sales require no human interaction. And you don't need a travel agent to book your holiday anymore.

But while artificial intelligence can perform numerous job functions, it brings no ethical considerations to bear on the tasks performed - a skill that Samson predicts will actually become more crucial as the world increases its reliance on technology.

It's still a big leap from where we are today to a world in which white-collar, know-how jobs are largely being performed by computers. But Samson proposes that this will happen by century's end and points out that history offers interesting precedent.

In 1900, 40 percent of the American workforce had been laboring in agriculture. A hundred years later, that number shrank to 2 percent. Manufacturing took up a lot of the slack until mid-century, when its numbers started to decline, too.

Now service-sector jobs offer the bulk of employment in the United States and run the gamut from a Starbucks barista to a haircutter to a corporate attorney.

"As computers take over more and more routine cognitive tasks, that will leave humans doing things that can't be automated," says Thomas Malone, author of "The Future of Work" and a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. "These new technologies will give us chances to make ethical and other choices in new ways."

But the technological progression doesn't necessarily mean we'll become more ethical, he adds. "Humans are capable of using automated information technology for unethical purposes."

The ripple effect of wrongdoing

What is apparent, however, is that the ripple effect of unethical behavior will become more acute.

"As computer systems make our work increasingly interconnected, so the chance for one unethical or incompetent person to do tremendous damage will increase," says David De Long, author of "Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce."

He cites the collapse in 1995 of Barings Bank brought about by a single rogue trader in Singapore. Even the cascading power blackouts in the US and Canada in August 2003, while not caused by unethical behavior, came down to split-second decisions by a handful of individuals.

That technological interconnectivity is already increasing the importance of human cooperation.

"Individual discretion mattered very little" in manufacturing companies with huge bureaucracies and elaborate hierarchies, says Joseph Grenny, author of "Crucial Confrontations." Today, "the need for greater integration and cooperation in the workplace means human values become more important because they're the glue of a community."

Shrinking tolerance for lapses

Trust is one of those values. Many of the business scandals in the past 10 years - such as Enron, Worldcom, ImClone, and Parmalat - would have been met with a yawn 50 or 100 years ago, Mr. Grenny says.

Today, they're more alarming because trust is at a greater premium.

"We feel so much more vulnerable because we are so much more interdependent," says Grenny. If someone manipulates the markets in Asia, it will have an effect in London, he adds as an example.

The amount of social capital or trust required in the world today for things to continue to function is far greater. As a result, tolerance for ethical lapses is shrinking.

Ethical culture lives or dies every day when someone chooses either to speak up or to remain silent, Grenny asserts. The consequences of not speaking up, however, are now more significant.

"The glue of trust in any society is people's capacity to confront mistrust," says Grenny, whose company VitalSmarts teaches employees the art of the uncomfortable conversation. You can measure the health of a society by how openly people are able to confront problems with each other, he says. To the degree that we can't and the problems remain suppressed, he says, trust erodes and we start to lose all the benefits of community.

The whole human system gets pressured significantly by technology, Grenny says. It exposes the weaknesses of a social system and demands that we either resolve them or suffer more acutely.

He offers e-mail as an example: In the old days, one person's grievance may have affected only the immediate team. Today, it can be telegraphed across an entire organization. One individual can wreck havoc by sharing a complaint with all the names in his or her entire address book.

"Until people learn to ethically, maturely, and directly deal with their crucial conversations, technology will amplify rather than mitigate our dysfunctions," says Grenny.

Dr. De Long offers another side of that argument. Relational knowledge, the "know-who" rather than the know-how, as he puts it, will become more critical as organizations increasingly depend on technology systems and computers.

How quickly technology makes the leap is any futurist's guess.

Artificial intelligence researchers have repeatedly been overly optimistic about the pace at which machines would take over "intelligent" tasks, Prof. Malone says.

But while past projections have been off, Malone agrees that technology has already had a dramatic impact on communication.

By reducing the cost of communications exponentially, it is changing the fundamental structure of business, he says. Organizations will become more fluid and decentralized as huge numbers of people have enough information to make intelligent decisions and choices for themselves.

"We're in the early stages of an increase in human freedom in business that may in the long run be as important a change for business as the change to democracies was for governments," he says.

One inevitable consequence of this shift, he says, will be more transparency. Access and openness make it harder to get away with unethical behavior.

Job descriptions in the future, says William Rothwell, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, will likely focus on the three-dimensional view - the type of person rather than simply the tasks.

It won't be "just what they can do," he says, "but the kind of person they are, ethically, morally."

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