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Barry Devlin

As one of the founders of data warehousing back in the mid-1980s, a question I increasingly ask myself over 25 years later is: Are our prior architectural and design decisions still relevant in the light of today's business needs and technological advances? I'll pose this and related questions in this blog as I see industry announcements and changes in way businesses make decisions. I'd love to hear your answers and, indeed, questions in the same vein.

About the author >

Dr. Barry Devlin is among the foremost authorities in the world on business insight and data warehousing. He was responsible for the definition of IBM's data warehouse architecture in the mid '80s and authored the first paper on the topic in the IBM Systems Journal in 1988. He is a widely respected consultant and lecturer on this and related topics, and author of the comprehensive book Data Warehouse: From Architecture to Implementation.

Barry's interest today covers the wider field of a fully integrated business, covering informational, operational and collaborative environments and, in particular, how to present the end user with an holistic experience of the business through IT. These aims, and a growing conviction that the original data warehouse architecture struggles to meet modern business needs for near real-time business intelligence (BI) and support for big data, drove Barry’s latest book, Business unIntelligence: Insight and Innovation Beyond Analytics, now available in print and eBook editions.

Barry has worked in the IT industry for more than 30 years, mainly as a Distinguished Engineer for IBM in Dublin, Ireland. He is now founder and principal of 9sight Consulting, specializing in the human, organizational and IT implications and design of deep business insight solutions.

Editor's Note: Find more articles and resources in Barry's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel and blog. Be sure to visit today!

Part 1 introduced the elephant in the room: a few of the ways that current technological advances affect jobs and society.  Part 2 explored the economics. Here I dissect some further recent economic thinking.

Elephant Rears.JPGAs we saw in my previous blog, the topic of the impact of technology on jobs has generated increased interest in the past few months. Tyler Cowen's Sept. 2013 "Average is Over" was one of the earlier books (of this current phase) that addressed this area. The pity is that, in the long run, he avoids the core of the problem as I see it: if technology is replacing current jobs and failing to create new ones in at least equal numbers, who will be the consumers of the products of the new technology?

In the early part of his book, Cowen builds the hypothesis that technology has been impacting employment for some decades now, creating a bifurcation in the job market. As the jobs that can be partially or fully automated expand in scope and number, people with strong skills that support, complement or expand technology will find relatively rich pickings. Those with more average technologically oriented skills do less well. If their skills are relatively immune to technological replacement--from building laborers to masseurs--they will continue to be in some demand, although increased competition will likely push down wages. However, the key trend is that middle-income jobs susceptible to physical or informational automation have been disappearing and continue to do so. 60% of US job losses in the 2007-2009 recession (choose your dates and name) were in the mid-income categories, while three-quarters of the jobs added since then have been low-income. The switch to low-paying jobs dates back to 1999; it's a well-established trend.

The largely unmentioned category in Cowen's book, beyond a nod to the figures on page one, is the growing numbers of young, long-term unemployed or underemployed, even among college graduates. I suggest we are actually seeing a trifurcation in the jobs market, with the percentages of this third category growing in the developed world and the actual numbers--due to population growth--exploding in the emerging economies. I don't have easy access to the statistics. However, given that the income of the first two categories, whether directly or indirectly, must support the third (as well as the young, the elderly and the ill), parts of the developed world seem pretty close already to the relative percentages at which the system could break down. Current ongoing automation of information-based jobs may well tip the balance.

Cowen's prescription for the future is profoundly depressing, even in the US context, at which the book is squarely aimed. To paraphrase, tax the wealthy and capital more. Just a little. Reduce benefits to the poor. Maybe a little more. And let both the poorly paid and unemployed move to cheaper accommodation far from expensive real estate. "...in a few parts of... the warmer states... [w]e would build some 'tiny homes'... about 400 square feet and cost in the range of $20,000 to $40,000. ... very modest dwellings, as we used to build in the 1920s. We also would build some makeshift structures, similar to the better dwellings you might find in a Rio de Janeiro favela. The quality of the water and electrical infrastructure might be low by American standards, though we could supplement the neighborhood with free municipal wireless (the future version of Marie Antoinette's famous alleged phrase will be 'Let them watch internet!')."

If your response is "look what happened to Marie Antoinette", Cowen declares that, given the age demographic of the US, revolution is an unlikely outcome. Consider, however, that this is a US view. In much of the developing world, the great transition from Agriculture to Manufacturing is only now underway. Some of that is supported by off-shoring from the West, some by local economic and population growth. However, robotic automation is already on the increase even in those factories. Foxconn, long infamous as Apple's iPhone hardware and assembly "sweatshop", announced as far back as 2011 that it planned on installing up to 1 million robots in its factories by this year. A year ago this week, they announced"We have canceled hiring entry-level workers, a decision that is partly associated with our efforts in production automation."

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Foxconn is working with Google with the aim of bringing Google's latest robotics acquisitions to the assembly lines to reduce job costs. Google also benefits: it gains a test bed for its purported new robotic operating system as well as access to Foxconn's mechanical engineering skills.  According to PCWorld, Foxconn's chairman, Terry Guo, told investors in June last year: "We have over 1 million workers. In the future we will add 1 million robotic workers. Our [human] workers will then become technicians and engineers."  The question of how many of the million human workers would become technicians and engineers seemingly went unaddressed. Echoing comments in Part 2 of this series, Foxconn are also reported to be looking to next-shore automated manufacturing to the US. To complete the picture, Bloomberg BusinessWeek meanwhile reported that Foxconn was also off-shoring jobs from China to Indonesia. A complex story, but the underlying driver is obvious: reduce labor, and then distribution, costs by any and every means possible.

Cowen's comments above about favelas, Marie Antoinette and revolutions should thus be seen in a broader view. The Industrial era middle class boom of the West may pass quickly through the emerging economies or perhaps bypass the later arrivals entirely. Shanty towns are already widespread in emerging economies; they house the displaced agricultural workers who cannot find or have already lost employment in manufacturing.  The age demographic in these countries is highly compatible with revolution and migration / invasion. For reasons of geography, the US may be less susceptible to invasion, but Europe's borders are under increasing siege. The Roman Empire's latter-day bread and circuses were very quickly overrun by the Vandals and the Visigoths.

The numbers and percentages of new jobs vs. unemployed worldwide are still up for debate among the economists. But their belief, echoed by the larger multinationals, that the consumer boom in the West of the 20th century will be replicated in the emerging economies stands perhaps on shaky ground.

For a broader and deeper view of the business and technological aspects of this topic, please take a look at my new book: Business unIntelligence: Insight and Innovation Beyond Analytics and Big Data

Part 4 follows.

Posted February 18, 2014 7:40 AM
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