Thomas H. Davenport is the President’s Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management at Babson College and a Fellow at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.
We don’t typically think of the jobs that we perform as commodities. The Merriam-Webster entry on commodity describes it as “a mass-produced unspecialized product.” But most of us view our jobs as specialized or somehow differentiated. We typically believe that we do them differently, and often better, than anyone else with the same job. In fact, we’d probably argue that no one does exactly the same job we do — that we perform at least a slightly different set of tasks, or perform them in a slightly different way, than any coworker.
We may well be right about that, but the world of business and management increasingly feels otherwise. Jobs are increasingly viewed as undifferentiated and interchangeable across humans and machines — the very definition of a commodity. Outsourcing — exchanging internal employees for external ones, often offshore — was a big step toward commoditization for many companies. Many recruiting processes lean toward commoditization, with, for instance, the automated scanning of résumés. You may think you are unique, but companies increasingly view you as just one of many people who can do whatever your particular skill is, from writing Python code to managing financial assets.
Just as there are low-value and high-value commodities, there are low-value and high-value commoditized jobs. Sand is a low-value commodity, and truck driving is a low-value commodity job. Gold is a high-value commodity, and financial trading is increasingly becoming a high-value commodity job (more on this later). For many jobs, the value is driven less by their intrinsic worth but rather by market demand. A recent Bloomberg Businessweek visual analytic suggests that jobs that disappeared in the first four months of 2017 compared with the same period in 2016 were not lost to automation, but were lost because fewer customers wanted to buy the products and services they produce. They include jobs in wired telecommunications, department stores, and coal mining.
For many organizations today, the next big driver of job commoditization is automation driven by smart machines. Simply put, if a job is viewed as a commodity, it won’t be long before it is automated. My research on automation through artificial intelligence (AI) or cognitive technologies suggests that if a job can be outsourced, many of the tasks typically performed by the jobholder can probably be automated — even by relatively “dumb” technologies like robotic process automation. Many global outsourcers are working desperately to create their own automation capabilities that could replace human jobs with machines.
Financial services are a ripe area for automation, given that many activities are relatively structured and there is relatively little product differentiation (it’s all money!). There are low-value and high-value commodity jobs in that industry, and some of the low-value ones, such as bank tellers and mutual fund accountants, have been disappearing for a while, albeit slowly.
Now, however, some of the high-value jobs are being commoditized as well. Sophisticated algorithms have begun to replace financial traders and hedge fund managers, and one-third of hedge fund assets are managed in that way, according to Hedge Fund Research Inc. based in Chicago. The “robo-advisor,” a machine that recommends investments to customers, has begun to replace human financial advisors. As customers increasingly turn to mutual funds, exchange traded funds (ETFs), and other “passive” investments, it’s relatively easy to determine an appropriate portfolio for consumers, rebalance it for asset allocation preferences, and harvest tax losses — all with little or no human intervention.
In short, even traditionally well-paid financial jobs are becoming commoditized. Since most financial markets are digital, machines can easily determine which investments perform best. Intuition and personal experience in picking investments count for little.
The key for financial professionals and other workers whose jobs have traditionally seemed safe is to make themselves less commodity-like. Automation is a game of large numbers, and it’s not economical to automate unique activities. As long as human workers’ capabilities are differentiated from machines’ capabilities, then machines can’t easily replace them — and few organizations will be tempted to automate that niche.
In financial asset management, for example, picking the right ETF is commoditized, but advising on other investments isn’t. If you’re a university investing your endowment, and want to put it into alternatives like timber or oil, you will probably need some expert advice. If you want to invest in esoteric debt like apartment leases, you will probably need wise (human) counsel as well. In this industry, then, astute asset managers should focus on assets that are not well-understood and not traded easily and digitally. Rishi Ganti, a hedge fund manager, argues in a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article that his future is in managing so-called “esoteric assets” that require human help — what he terms “high human capital” — to manage. “It’s like dark matter,” Ganti says. “They dwarf the visible stuff lit up by markets.”
Another angle for protecting your work from becoming a commoditized job is to focus on the most human aspects of the task — that is, those that are most difficult to automate. In the financial world, this often involves understanding human beings and the silly financial decisions they often make. One of my students described this as “financial psychiatry,” but a more academically respectable name is “behavioral finance.” Financial advisors who understand it can focus not on selecting investments for their clients, but on talking them off the cliff when they’re ready to “sell everything” after a market decline. Or they can address the tricky problem of reconciling the diverse risk tolerances of husbands and wives. These complex emotional and behavioral problems are not likely to be taken over by machines anytime soon.
Ironically, workers in finance and other industries that have high-paying, specialized jobs can also make themselves less commoditized by helping with the commoditization process. If they’re good at structuring decisions and understanding how those are represented in computers, they will have jobs for quite a while. They’ll be able to monitor machine-based decisions, pick up the ball when the machines drop it (because of missing data, for example), and perhaps even improve machines’ decision-making over time.
It’s very difficult to predict how quickly jobs of various types will become commodities, and how quickly the humans that perform them will be replaced by machines. Jobs are comprised of a set of tasks, only some of which are usually automated. Automation often takes longer than we expect because organizational inertia can be high, because all jobs are slightly different from each other, and because people find ways to differentiate themselves. But no matter what your field, it pays to ask yourself whether your job is common and repetitive enough to be done by a machine. If you conclude that it is, it’s time to look for — or create — less commoditized work.