Faethm's Mike Priddis: how COVID changed the future of work
Faethm's Michael Priddis says there have been significant changes in the world of work with a dramatic acceleration in automation and related technologies
The pandemic-related events of the past two years have accelerated a number of significant trends in the future of work. Mass adoption of working from home has had diverse economic and social impacts on organisations, which have turned to technology to help with enabling and facilitating new and different ways of working.
One of the most significant technology trends has been in the field of automation, according to Michael Priddis, founder of Faethm by Pearson. “COVID has really been a slingshot for automation. It didn’t just accelerate what we were doing with automation around the world; it jumped us from 2019/2020 to 2023/2024, almost overnight,” said Mr Priddis, who launched SaaS (software as a service) AI platform Faethm in 2017 and it is now used by governments and companies in more than 21 industries and 26 countries around the world.
Mr Priddis is an AGSM @ UNSW Business School Alumnus who was recently interviewed by Mary-Anne Williams, Professor in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School and Michael J Crouch Chair for Innovation at UNSW Sydney. He observed that before COVID arrived, many large companies around the world were experimenting with emerging technologies. These included robotic process automation in the back office, voice AI in customer engagement channels, robotics in distribution centres and autonomous vehicles in controlled environments such as mine sites or farms.
At the end of 2019, organisations might have brought such technologies to the proof-of-concept level, but Mr Priddis observed rollout timeframes were dramatically accelerated with the advent of COVID and these experimental technologies were pushed out across organisations. “Companies had to keep working, even though people were working from home or unable to come into the office or workspace. So COVID led to a real slingshot effect on automation,” he said.
COVID prompts “values reset” on automation and redundancy
At the same time, companies were unwilling to contribute to the welfare queue, according to Mr Priddis, who recalls having many conversations with companies around the world that wanted to accelerate technology rollouts that would impact work processes and their people in potentially significant ways. “They were saying, ‘we’re going to take this robotic process automation software and we’re going to put it into our underwriting team. Probably 20 people or so might lose their jobs, but that’s okay (it may not be completely okay with the individual). But at the corporate strategic level, you know, we’re kind of okay with that, because there’s lots of other work out there,’” he explained.
Three or four months later, COVID happened and everyone was working from home, said Mr Priddis. This changed the trajectory of thinking around technology rollouts and their impact on workforces. Organisations were more reluctant to automate jobs and push people out of work in COVID lockdown environments, with no work and no opportunity to get new work, he said. “So I think it changed the values of companies that, perhaps six or 12 months before, had been quite casual about the effects of automation. Actually, they took the social effect very, very seriously.”
This led organisations to invest an “awful lot more” into learning and development, retraining, reskilling and upskilling – to the point where it became a strategic value. This segued unexpectedly but fortuitously for organisations as they leveraged technology to focus on important workforce-related activity that could be enabled by good data. “There was a values reset among corporate leaders towards a much more social or kind of humanistic approach to the effects of automation and redundancy,” said Mr Priddis.
Learning and development as a strategic initiative
This ‘values reset’ has led many organisations and their leaders to rethink their approach to learning and development initiatives, and how these can genuinely support the adoption of technology for commercial benefits – preferably with altruistic benefits for the workforce. As Mr Priddis has observed, there has been a shift away from companies looking to automate and make people redundant, to a focus on teaching people to use those technologies, or to move them into new work.
“That’s led to the rise of learning and development as a strategic tool,” he explained. “L&D used to be a bit of a, dare I say, waste of time, a bit of a ticking-the-box exercise. You know: ‘we’re a big PLC, a big corporate, we’ve got five grand for everybody for training, you’re going to go into communication skills training or project management, training, or whatever it might be.’ You’ve probably done it before, and you as the person being trained almost view it as a bit of a day out. It’s not something you take seriously, it’s just in training.”
However, the world has changed over the past few years, and Mr Priddis said L&D is now viewed as a strategic activity in which companies are much more informed and strategic about value delivered and where they spend their L&D money. “And because they’re now able to use tools like Faethm (which employs a sophisticated AI platform to analyse data and provide insights about automation, reskilling and redeploying workers for new jobs, economic and investment scenario modeling as well as COVID-19 resilience and remote working) to examine what future skills they need for the future jobs they need, that spend is much more targeted. It’s much more productive. Learning and development is now much more of a business-critical activity,” he said.
As a result, employees are also viewing L&D in a very different light. Having gone through the past few years which were occupationally rocky for many (to say the least), Mr Priddis said workers realise they need to take L&D seriously as it is simply not about career development. “The way that you go through this will determine what you do in the future,” he said.
How COVID has changed strategic planning
The past few years have radically reshaped how organisations and their executive teams approach strategic planning. Where they might have had a three or even five-year plan in the past, this has narrowed down to a 12-month plan (potentially accompanied by a more general three or five-year vision), according to Mr Priddis, who said companies are now taking much more agile, iterative approaches to strategic planning.
While vision is important, the advice Mr Priddis had for C-suites and boards was to avoid being locked on visions to the extent that they can’t consider any new ideas or datasets which might provide new insights. Instead, he recommended continuing the use of analytics and data platforms, running potential scenarios, and examining and deciding on the next best course of action for the organisation.
“Even though you might have five completely different scenarios that might take you through this turbulent world to this place that you want to get to in the future, most of them probably have the same first next step,” he said.