Intersection of Digital, Design, and The Future of Work

Last night I was on a panel at IIT’s Stuart School of Business. The panel talked about the intersection of the future of work, design, engineering, and digital.  The crowd was diverse, and the panel had diverse experiences and degrees. I was the only one without a PhD, but I have a lot of market experience to make it up.

We covered a lot of points in the wide-ranging discussion.  It was a good discussion with a lot of difference of opinion, but no one shouted.  No one attacked.  Unfortunately, they didn’t tape it.  This is the first time they have done it and I hope they do more of it.  Another very cool fact is 200 people came to a tech event on a rainy night in Chicago to talk about issues in tech.  That wouldn’t have happened a number of years ago and shows the tech community is growing, on point and engaged in Chicago.

I wanted to pick up a point or two and share them with you to see what you thought.  There were lots of compelling questions.  It’s hard to pick one.

One that was interesting to me was about tech companies and how they interact with their employees and the outside world.  Should they be worried about the human implications of what they are building?  The person that initially invented the ATM put people out of a job, but the convenience is pretty nice.  Should that inventor have worried about it?  Which leads the the question of taxing robots.  Should we tax them?

Let me go backward.  I don’t think we should tax robots because it is a tax on innovation.  If we do that, we should tax washing machines, and other more mundane “robots”.  I also think that technology is going to be built whether we like it or not.  It moves forward relentlessly.  We don’t know what kinds of jobs will be created but over the course of time our lives have been better for it. People learn new skills.  I do think we are approaching a very disruptive time, but I also think that it is almost impossible for us to assemble all the pieces nicely the way our brains want them assembled.  No one heard of the position, “social media coordinator” in 2000.

Even with a lot of AI, robots and other things that help bring humans to a decision; humans will still have to interpret data and set strategy and make decisions.  They will have to critically think.  STEM education isn’t enough.  Go back and read Adam Smith, JS Mill, and David Hume.  Critical thinking and creativity are skills that will never go away.

If you are a tech company you need to satisfy your customers.  Delight them.  You also need to satisfy your shareholders.  You satisfy your shareholders by delighting your customers and getting more of them.  But what about the janitor?  The point was made the janitor at Apple isn’t an employee.  They don’t have a stake in the business, but they do work around the facility and make life easier for employees.

If that’s the case and your company values it, give them some equity.

It becomes about corporate culture.  Companies start building it right away.  Corporate culture also becomes a marketing tool for companies to attract customers and more employees.  If giving equity to “menial” people that are “working” but not working for the firm is important to you then give out some options or straight equity to that person.

One other point was made like this.  “Name a technology that has been developed that hasn’t hurt people.”  I mentioned heart transplants but there are plenty of others. Technology is never developed to hurt people unless you are talking about things built for the defense industry. Even then, defense technology and the methods of delivery hurt far fewer people today than they did in the past.

I am very optimistic about the technological advances that are coming.  We are going to see the intersection of design crossing into all kinds of disciplines where it wasn’t considered before. It’s going to be very cool.







  • “give them some equity.” This is a great sentiment, in theory.
    In practice, what the janitor, or almost any lower-paid worker wants, is higher current consumption. More money. If you give a worker equity that they can sell, most will convert it into current money that they can consume.

    Unlike most rich folk, who have almost everything under $X thousand (1? 5? 10?), let’s say under $10k, that they want. Most workers want: newer car, bigger house, better restaurant food, better clothes (and shoes!). The basics, which they have already — but better. Which they get with more money.

    Marx was especially stupid about “owning the means of production” — most workers don’t want the responsibility of owning a company, altho they do want the higher income that owners of successful businesses have.

    On the other hand, you can’t “tax robots”, you can only tax the owners of the robots. Either with a purchase tax or a continuing “robot property” tax. And yes, this would be a tax on capital — but is better than taxing income or labor. (Lower taxes only come from lower gov’t expenditures, which is a separate rant)

    The US and other OECD countries should be moving towards more progressive capital taxation, so the rich who own a lot of property and shares and other capital pay more than cash entitlement payments from gov’t they receive. But working poor and median workers should pay less.

    And all should be given a job offer, including military support (another rant). The interlocking of these above positions makes it difficult to talk about any one of them without the others.

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  • Interestingly, in the early-ish 90s — nearly contemporaneous with events like Lotus secretaries getting big stock payouts when Lotus got bought out — WalMart had a very robust employee stock purchase plan.

    If I recall correctly, all employees could buy WalMart stock, discounted, via payroll deduction, every paycheck. They could also sell the stock via the plan fairly seamlessly and with low transaction fees. Some employees did this routinely, and generated more income via the stock than their salaries, depending on how well the stock was doing. (Of course, this was during a time that the market was starting to come back.)

    I don’t know if WalMart still has this kind of plan for employees. (Nor have I kept up with changes in regulations around these sorts of plans, nor the tax implications which used to be fairly simple for the average Walmart employee.)

    • My answer was it was all about the culture you want to create at your firm. Paying what seem to be “menial” commodity employees with a little equity sends a signal to your customers and potential new hires. For a public company to allow employees to buy stock is a good idea. Harder of course with a private company although big ones do it. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer here. Apple doesn’t hire it’s own janitors and outsources it because of costs, and public policy influencing that decision. There might be tax consequences that are pretty adverse if they granted them equity.

      • Yes, and…it’s a choice. Like everything else.

        Educated assumption: Lotus was a pretty small company when the owners made that call.