Wearable technology: next big thing?

It's man and machine, not man versus machine.

As the hype around wearable technology gathers momentum, and the first working examples of such devices are released to the world, business leaders are beginning to consider the impact that they might have on the enterprise. Mostly, such considerations are focused on the fast-moving sectors of marketing and e-commerce; however, I would argue that the influence of such technology could potentially be much greater.

What wearable technology represents is the ability to augment the capability of the human brain with that of a computer, and to allow the two to work more closely than has ever been capable in the past. With ideal connectivity and supporting infrastructure, the technology offers the ability to search and display any information that is available to the enterprise right in the eye-view of a worker. Not only that, but because the technology can see what the worker sees, and hears what they hear, artificial intelligence at the back-end could potentially suggest information that would be useful to the actual task in hand.

At its most extreme, that represents a hybrid of man and machine, with the capability and creativity of the former augmented by the knowledge and computational power of the latter. In some industries, this could have an impact that is not just incremental, but also transformational; in fact, it could be so significant as to completely destroy the business models upon which some sectors are based. The productivity gains are potentially so great as to have a perceptible impact on the economy at a national, regional and even global level. 

This applies equally from the highest to the lowest skill levels in the economy. Consider, for example, the management consultant, tasked with improving a company’s overall profitability – as she makes her way around that company, not only everything she hears, but everything she sees can be recorded, analysed and then compared with the information she already has about the company. Not only that, but the same would be the case for the other member of the team – and, as they work, all this information could be automatically compared to the proprietary economic models that the company holds. Equally, consider the customer service assistant who, as he or she looks at you, can have all the information about your history with the company presented in their eyeline, as well as information about you available publicly. Online retailers already provide service in this way, but the ability to replicate that personal experience offline would give high-street retailers a powerful tool to enhance the experience of their customers.

The possibilities are endless, and other industries that could benefit include the law, accountancy, medicine, engineering, logistics, retail and many more. Yet the two examples above, however, should have aroused the critical instinct in any alert reader. Even with what has recently been a dramatic reduction in the instinct to privacy amongst consumers, most would find these situations somewhat less than natural. Much as all the technologies in these scenarios already exist, combining them in the manner suggested could well be considered unsettling by a majority of the general public.  Furthermore, there are notable technical difficulties, particularly around connectivity, and the storage of information in such a way as to facilitate near-instant access.

Tackling the legal and privacy issues will almost certainly take priority – while societal attitudes are changing fast, for a long time there will remain a significant minority who do not share these attitudes, and businesses will have to be sensitive to that. That means developing business processes, policy and compliance to seek consent where possible, and doing everything possible to prevent misuse of the technology. The real-time nature of the assistance that wearable technology can provide means that connectivity is similarly crucial and businesses will need to make sure that every link in each and any network they use is as fast as possible. That will need to be complemented by a new approach to the IT infrastructure on which corporations store information, with disk technology and management software designed to minimise response times, allowing information to be recovered without noticeable delay.

Social media, data analytics, mobile devices and cloud computing are already recognised as disruptive technologies, with the potential to transform the way in which businesses can be run. Wearable technology is the next step in that process, which can bring all these technologies together, in real time, in a personalised manner and with minimum user effort. However, the obstacles for early adopters to overcome are many and significant, and the process of its development as a tool for business will not initially be rapid. That means that there is time for businesses to properly consider how their industry might be affected and to prepare to take the opportunity that these technologies offer.

Photograph: Getty Images

Ved Sen is mobility practice head, UK and Europe at Cognizant Technology Solutions.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.