In the September issue of Business Information Review (BIR) we will be publishing the 28th Annual Survey of trends in commercial Information and Knowledge Management. The BIR Annual Survey is the longest running continuous survey of the needs and working lives of commercial information and knowledge managers in the World. Since 1990 it has provided an invaluable insight into the changing world of Information and Knowledge Management. Throughout July on this blog we will be giving a taste of some of the trends that have emerged in this year’s survey. These blog posts will not reveal any detail from the survey, but provide an indication of the themes that dominate the commercial information world today. The first of these themes is the growing presence of AI in the workplace.
Over the past year Artificial Intelligence (AI) has moved from science fiction and Hollywood cinema into the business mainstream. Business Information Review has tracked this trend, exploring the emergence of AI in the workplace in an Out-of-the-Box special and editorial in December.
AI describes a cluster of technologies: machine learning; natural language processing; decision making and reasoning; automation of business processes, and so on. The ways in which AI is impacting on the commercial world is therefore quite varied. Nevertheless the impact is tangible; PwC report Sizing the Prize predicts a $16 trillion contribution to the global economy by 2030. AI in the workplace is still in its infancy and while in the future it is likely to impinge on professional roles and functions, at the moment that impact is limited to defined tasks and functions, such as for example the growing use of IBM’s Watson in legal and health research. Yet the embryonic nature of AI technologies today should not blind us to the disruptive potential of the technology over the next ten years. We are at the beginning of a process that is set to transform business, particularly in those fields that have largely remained immune to automation: the professions, business-to-business services, and elements of creative work.
Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody is ten years old this year. In it Shirky observed the following about the disruptive potential of technology for professional occupations:
Most professions exist because there is a scarce resource that requires ongoing management. […] When a profession has been created as a result of some scarcity, as with librarians or television programmers, the professionals themselves are often the last ones to see it when that scarcity goes away (Shirky, 2008),
While Shirky’s diagnosis of the challenges facing librarianship are overly simplistic, they do help explain some of the changes to the profession over the past ten years, and some of the ways that professional work in general has changed. The web revolution disrupted the scarcity of information – resources that had been locked up in hard-to-access physical media or esoteric information retrieval systems were unleashed. We have seen that the gatekeeper role over collections and resources has tended to decline in the digital age. But as information managers have stepped back from purely managing resources they have found new roles in facilitating access to and use of information, and in applying their professional expertise to align the strategic management of information with organisational aims and objectives. Ownership over resources has declined, but evaluation of information and information resources has become increasingly important.
We are perhaps on the brink of another major technological shift in our relationship to information. If decline in scarcity in the digital age tended to emphasize a set of very human aptitudes to leverage the most value from an increasingly abundant resource, particularly around research, evaluation, re-presentation and strategic information management, then the rise of AI threatens to colonize these remaining roles. In the liminal space of information today the tide of technology is constantly encroaching. The next ten years may see automation of a whole range of business functions that previous depended on human reasoning, decision making and interpersonal skills.
AI cannot, however, function in a vacuum, and just as with previous changes in the structure of information delivery, the technology opens up new possibilities for the information profession. The ways in which AI is beginning to impact on information work is a key theme in this year’s survey, and mark a beginning of a conversation within the profession about the future of information work.