Microsoft recognises AI might screw over some employees

Artificial intelligence has been hyped as the technology which will drive profits in the next era, though few in the technology want recognise how painful the technology will be for some segments of society.

The propaganda mission from the technology world was incredibly present at Microsoft’s UK event Future Decoded. Of course, there are benefits from the implementation of AI. Business can be more productive, more intelligent and more proactive, tackling trends ahead of time and gaining an edge on competitors. There is a lot of buzz, but it might just turn out to be justified.

Despite this promise, Microsoft has seemingly done something this morning few other technology companies around the world are brave enough to do; recognise that there will be people screwed by the deployment.

“There is a risk of leaving an entire generation behind,” said Microsoft UK CEO Cindy Rose.

The risk here is the pace of change. While previous generations might have had time to adapt to the impact of next-generation technologies, today’s environment is allowing AI to disrupt the status quo at a much more aggressive pace than ever before. Rose pointed towards the explosive growth of data, pervasiveness of the cloud and much more powerful algorithms, as factors which are accelerating the development and deployment of AI.

One question which should be asked is whether the workforce can be re-educated and reskilled fast enough to ensure society is not being left behind? Yes it can, but Rose stated the UK is not doing enough to keep pace with the disruption.

Looking at statistics which support this statement, Microsoft has released research which found 41% of employees and 37% of business leaders believe older generations will get left behind. Now usually when we talk about older generations and a skills gap, retirees comes to mind. However, those in the late 40s or early 50s could be the more negatively affected. The ability or desire to reskill might not be there due to the individuals entering the final stages of their career before retirement, though the risk of redundancy will be present. How are the people who might be made redundant 3-4 years short of retirement going to be supported? This is a question which has not been answered or even considered by anyone.

To help with imbalance, Microsoft UK has announced the launch of its AI Academy, which is targeted on training 500,000 people on AI skills. This is not just a scheme which is aimed at developers, but also IT professionals, those at risk of job loss and executives in both the business and public sector world.

As the technology industry has pointed out several times, there will be jobs created as part of the AI enthusiasm. But here is the risk, are those who are victims of job displacement suitably qualified to take these jobs? No, they are not. Uber drivers who fall victims to the firms efforts in autonomous driving, or how about the bookmaker who will be made redundant by SAPs powerful accounting software. These are not data scientists or developers, and will not be able to claim a slice of the AI bonanza which is being touted today.

But perhaps the risk has been hyped because there is too much focus on the negative? KPMG’s Head of Digital Disruption Shamus Rae suggested too much attention has been given to the dystopian view of AI, instead of its potential to unlock value and capture new revenues. Comfused.com CEO Louise O’Shea said one way her team implemented AI was to pair technical and non-technical staff to, firstly, allow front line employees to contribute to development and make an application which is actually useful, and secondly remove the fear of the unknown. The technical staff educate the non-technical staff on what the technology means and why it can help.

These are interesting thoughts, and do perhaps blunt the edge of the AI threat somewhat, but there will be those who use AI for purely productivity gains, not the way the industry is selling it. These are not businesses which will survive in the long-term, but they will have a negative impact on employees and society in the short-term. When you are lining up in the dole queue, the promise of an intelligent, cloud-orientated future is little comfort.

Microsoft UK CEO Cindy Rose is right. AI will power the next-generation and create immense value for the economy. But, no-where near enough is being done to help those at risk of job loss to adapt to the new world. The aim here is not to hide the negative with an overwhelming tsunami of benefits, but to minimise the consequences as much as possible. Not enough is being done.

DT moves to clarify T-Systems strategy

Following reports that Deutsche Telekom is cutting 10,000 jobs from its T-Systems division, the operator thought it was time to make an official statement.

Late last week the news leaked out that DT’s global services division was going to lose a quarter of its workforce. The division has apparently been struggling for a while and Adel Al-Saleh was brought in as CEO at the end of last year to sort things out. As is so often the case, it seems the first part of his strategy is to slim down his organisation and have a general reshuffle.

“Our strategy is in place: We are aligning ourselves to eleven portfolio units, we have initiated four change initiatives and are now implementing the plans,” said Al-Saleh. “This will turn T-Systems into a digital service provider for our customers. We will spend triple-digit millions per year on the growth areas, because the transformation of the company must not jeopardize our success where we are strong.”

The strategy has been somewhat paradoxically named ‘investing while saving’. This sounds a bit like what Ericsson has been saying for a year or two about returning to profitability while being careful to keep investing in R&D. This is a tricky but important balance as you can’t just cut your way to long-term growth; you need to sow the seeds for the future too.

Continuing the doublespeak theme the announcement confirmed that 10,000 jobs worldwide will be ‘affected’, with 4,000 ‘relocated’ and 6,000 ‘reduced’. The underlying narrative is all around efficiency, simplification and sorting the wheat from the chaff, including the elimination of no less than five management levels. The mere fact that T-Systems is able to do that speaks volumes about how badly-run it has been to date.

T-Systems joins the job-slashing brigade with 10k cuts

Deutsche Telekom is the next telco to axe employees, with its T-Systems division set to reduce its headcount by as much as 10,000, almost a quarter of employees.

According to Bloomberg, 10,000 jobs will be cut over the next three years, 6,000 of which will be in Germany, as the struggling unit redirects focus onto more lucrative segments such as cloud, cyber security and IoT. The headcount reduction is aimed at saving the telco roughly €600 million by 2021.

While job losses are never a pleasant topic of discussion, it is becoming much more common. BT hit headlines in recent months with plans to slim down the workforce by 13,000, while Vodafone decided to cut jobs but maintain executive bonuses and earlier this week, Telstra announced it was axing 8,000 as part of its Telstra2022 strategy.

In each of the above examples, the message has been simple; jobs from underperforming or soon to be redundant business units are being removed. There might be some additional hires as the telcos pivot to new areas, though the facts are plain; the telcos more jobs are being lost than created. This is another example of the times; telcos are generally not ready for the digital economy and restructuring initiatives to future-proof the business are something we should get used to.

At T-Systems, CEO Adel Al-Saleh seems to be living up to his reputation as a man who can turn around troubled business units. The T-Systems business has long been viewed as the problem child of the Deutsche Telekom family, consistently losing business to the likes of AWS and Microsoft who can offer faster and cheaper IT services through the cloud, and now the Al-Saleh effect seems to be coming into the equation. Having joined the business in January, Al-Saleh is now focusing on more profitable contracts, quality over quantity, as well as more lucrative ventures, such as cloud, cyber security and IoT. Such a shift in business priorities does not come without repercussions however.

Looking at the financials for the first quarter, total revenues at T-Systems declined 2.3% year-on-year to €1.704 billion, with EBITDA shrinking 40% to €57 million. It does seem DT has realised it cannot compete with the more agile cloud players, and has finished throwing good money after bad, instead focusing on areas where it can be more influential.