calendar 07.03. 2017

Digitalisation 4.0

"Industry 4.0, Strategy 2020 or 2025, Cultural Change 4.0, Generation "R" (Robotics), and of course the Internet of Things" are the catch phrases that experts keep throwing at us. Those are the experts who see digitalisation from the providers' perspective, and therefore talk of opportunities. ista is one of these experts. However, experts swing between rose-tinted glasses and alarm bells – Stefan Schuster takes an outside ista perspective and speaks about change processes in digital evolution.

“In 5, 10, 25 or 50 years’ time, 10, 15 or 25 per cent of all jobs will have been replaced by digitalisation.” This is what those experts say who see things through the perspective of those affected and shine a light on the threats of digitalisation. You may well think that this shining light is still very diffuse. According to some experts, it is above all office jobs that are at risk. All experts agree on the start of sentences such as “Soon we will all” …. but then comes either the promise of a digital paradise or a threatening scenario describing the opportunities and risks of digitalisation. What actually then happens is often quite different: after all, in the 60s when digitalisation and automation first permitted the use of ever better robots in manufacturing, experts predicted that robots would also take their place in the services sector. But in fact so far no robot puts fuel in our car – we do it ourselves. It is euphemistically called “self-service”. Whether we like it or not: we ourselves are now all experts in self-service: each one of us just needs to look at our list of passwords for access to the self-service world which is actually nothing more than DIY.

And what else do the experts say about the threat to jobs?

On the one hand, you can read that there is less risk of being completely or partially replaced by computers if you have a higher level of education. But before I start to wonder how high my level of education actually is, I also read, on the other hand: people in the many jobs involving simple work are in the end the ones who have less to fear from digitalisation: anyone who is prepared to get stuck in, to take care of things and to help in very normal “analog work environments” will still be needed in future as well. Thinking about these two diametrically opposed statements, I suddenly remembered that I already had my first encounters with digitalisation in the world of work when I was young.

robotics
Will robots not stop short of office jobs? Who is replaceable and who is not?

How digital change already caught me up as an apprentice.

I grew up in a long-gone time when nobody had a pocket calculator. We at the Deutsche Bank branch where I started my bank apprenticeship certainly didn’t anyway. If at all, it was only rich customers who had pocket calculators. The word Big Bang hadn’t been invented, either. And everybody smoked at their workplace; the ashtrays were full. Just two metres away from the customer’s nose. That was in the mid-70s. In times where corporate culture was quite different. In the evenings, I then typed the sales revenues from that day into a calculating machine, which was electric but did not store the sales revenue figures, but printed them on paper. A few weeks later, I was transferred to head office and landed up in the “Data Acquisition” department. There the sales revenues on the strips of paper were added up and posted to an account. On punched cards.

Can you believe that?

That’s the way it was, and a few weeks later I was assigned to the computer centre. This was where cardboard boxes full of such punched cards arrived every day. The computer centre was a real staff department with a head who had the ranking of a director. Actually he had no idea about the work, but the staff didn’t let him feel that. The computer centre was massive and the only floor of the bank which had air-conditioning. Everywhere stood IBM cabinets in which the magnetic tapes rotated. And there were hard disks over which a huge dome like a cheese cloche had to be placed before reading of the punched card balances could be started. The machine that read the cards made an awful clatter like the automatic bank note counters today. Naturally, there were many problems, but here everything was new; there was a feeling of excitement like Steve Jobs in his garage. But sometimes we simply despaired: when the punched card readers got clogged up, the air-conditioning broke down, or the magnetic tapes tangled.

punch cards
In the mid-70s, punched cards were still used for data acquisition.

If something was broken – and that often happened – the staff had to keep out of it: that’s why there was a whole row of tables with some 30 different newspapers and magazines lying on them. The director had taken out subscriptions for them so his lads had something to read. My colleagues pressed the RESET button a few times without success, then called the service people and got themselves a couple of newspapers from the table or a fresh ham sandwich from the market. If you needed an electrician, that wasn’t so bad. But when the balances didn’t reconcile, the IBM programmers were called in. They programmed in COBOL and only told us the bare minimum because they, of course, wanted to stay in the game. The director didn’t care one way or the other. When they came, it was game over for the day for us.

When it got complicated, the IBM service people from Frankfurt even came out. Then we could really have gone straight home, but there were always enough newspapers and things from the market to keep us occupied. Some people used their working time then for making private bets on the horses. Naturally not using the Internet – such digital advances were not even dreamt of then – but using a betting newspaper and the bank’s landline since mobile phones didn’t exist then, either.

Can you believe that?

Three years after finishing my apprenticeship, I was ready to study for a degree but I had got bad grades at school. The bank was kind enough to take me for another year and paid me something like a “student’s salary”.

And I was amazed: monitors were now standing in the computer centre, and the whole process now ran online – parallel to the punched cards. As a “beta version” so-to-speak. When more than a year had passed, and an endless number of newspapers had been read, the days of the punched cards were finally over, and the bank was “in” in online banking. Admittedly without the Internet: online reconciliation was performed using dedicated lines and was only internal. There was no major incident, like the loss of 10 million in book money for example, as the colleagues from IBM provided support for the whole process, and the word “hacker” didn’t yet exist, either. In life outside the bank, graphic cards then also enabled the technological leap from Tetris and Pacman visuals to real pictures. Ever increasing processing power and better data lines made the Internet possible, and my personal look-back over 40 years of digitalisation ends in the present – that is to say in our self-service economy in front of a screen.

computer
Digitalisation meant the times of punched cards were finally over and the computer age, a paperless working world, had dawned.

By the way: my absent-mindedness in such self-service matters led to me once transferring EUR 3000 online in payment of a fine instead of EUR 30. Just forgot the decimal point. How stupid can you get! When such things happen, it’s reassuring to know you can phone up a real person who transfers the EUR 2970 back and makes a joke about it as well.

Now everything’s coming thick and fast!

Although we have been keeping up with digitalisation for years, as an “expert in everyday life” I sometimes think: now everything’s coming thick and fast! For example, along comes a “disruptive” and highly successful provider of overnight accommodation who doesn’t have a single bed itself!

And then there’s the Snapchat image sharing app, which the German daily, Tagesspiegel, hailed in its headline: “Finally! Photos delete themselves!” But it is still not necessarily a mistake to keep up with the changes in digitalisation. At the same time, as a job seeker, it is not a mistake to avoid a company whose business model sounds all-too adventurous. After all, sometimes something which sounds adventurous today is hip tomorrow and insolvent the day after. No expert can help us there, only cool common sense.

It seems to me that the only person who has to worry is me: “post-truth” was crowned the 2016 word of the year: our colleague, the computer, integrated in botnets, spreads specially targeted fake news so fast that the respectable journalist has no chance of correcting it. Now I may not be a real journalist, but here I feel for “my colleagues”!

When confronted by such news, I freely admit that education is the only thing that helps readers if they suddenly read again that experts have discovered the world is flat…

Your outsider