What Does “Digital” Mean and What is The Future of Work? A Conversation with Cognizant Exec, Paul Roehrig

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We are living in a digital world. But what does the term “digital” actually mean? Paul Roehrig is currently the head of strategy at Cognizant, and he joined IT Visionaries to dive deep into that question. Plus, he discusses what the future of work looks like, and why we should not fear automation and robots.  

Best Advice: “You’re going to get yelled at about a lot of stuff that matters less to the business. That’s what you’re signing up for. The best CIOs should be able to bifurcate your work and how you see the world. How do you apply technology to drive growth? The job is going to be around balancing those two pieces.” 

Key Takeaways:

  • Redefining the word “digital”
  • The day-to-day responsibilities of the head of strategy
  • What does the future of work look like?
  • Why we should fear not the bot

Paul’s history in technology

Paul was a professional musician and it was through music and the recording process that he was first immersed in technology. He loved how involved technology was in the process of creating music and, eventually, he began to teach the subject.  

“I love how technology’s become more and more essential to really every business process and every human experience.”

What does digital mean today?

According to Paul, the word “digital” was brought into the lexicon to address the rapidly changing landscape of technology. If you think back to 2007, which was when the first iPhone came out, our expectations of how technology should work and be a part of our lives were completely different from what our expectations are now just 12 years later. Because technology went through a tremendous shift and all with the advent of new technology, such as cloud computing, A.I. and everything else, we needed a new modifier. That’s where digital comes in to play. Paul gives likens “digital” to the word “electric.” Things like washer-dryers needed to be described as electrical because it was different than what people were used to. So the word “digital” was used because we needed to signify a shift from an old economy and way of doing things to a new one. 

“We needed to say digital technology, digital systems, and digital business because it frames it as something new.”

Paul’s work at Cognizant

Cognizant offers numerous services, but ultimately Paul explains that everything comes down to software. His role is to modernize existing software and build new, engaging and frictionless software to help serve the business and customers. Essentially, he is working on a way to optimize data through new and exciting software that utilizes technology such as A.I. and ML. The way to do this is constantly changing, though, based on evolving value propositions and market landscape, so Paul is always pushing himself to be on the cutting edge of innovation.

“The fact of the matter is that software in the modern economy doesn’t work without huge amounts of data that are well managed. And the data has to be configured and modernized so that you can draw meaning from it and then build business value from it.”

The day to day responsibilities of the job

Paul is with customers all the time because he believes that strategy and processes need to be tested in the real world as soon as possible in order to discover their viability. So internally Paul orchestrates a digital strategy, but he doesn’t consider that strategy real until it has been tested. He listens to his team, he listens to clients, and he lets those opinions guide him. 

“I’m a strong believer that strategy that isn’t constantly tested against the real world is a pretty risky bet, to be honest. You can have interesting ideas, and that’s important as well, and you can try to orchestrate the construction of a good strategy based on data. But it’s like [Mike] Tyson used to say, right? Everybody has a plan until they get hit. And I think it’s important to take ideas as soon as possible to test them in the market.”

“Part of a good strategy is based on listening. So being able to listen to clients and then connect that back into the internal work — that’s what I see my role as.”

Building the Center for the Future of Work, and Paul’s decision to write

There is no doubt that how people work and how businesses are run has changed thanks to technology. In order to understand how best to serve clients in the future and how to ensure the success of a company, Paul and his colleagues felt compelled to study the ways in which work was changing and train people for what was to come. From the ideas brought about in the center, Paul co-authored two books about things like the role of machines in business and life, and the way digital lives are changing the rules of business. He says that some days it’s exciting, but some days you’re wondering why you did this. But he started writing after realizing that companies are rising and falling at a rapid rate. He wanted to find out how and why certain companies succeed and what role they can play in the creation of value. Writing these books, Paul says that he gets questioned about whether it’s more content marketing than valuable writing. The answer, Paul says, is in the content itself. 

“If you step back and look at it a little bit more objectively, if you look at how Cognizant has evolved and continues to be at or near the head of the pointy end of the spear of how companies are evolving to make technology more essential to how they conduct their internal businesses as well as their consumer-facing activities, the center helped paint the path. And not just for Cognizant, but even more importantly for our clients. We asked what should they be thinking about? What is the future of work? What do they do about jobs? How do you think about deploying artificial intelligence? What is an enhanced worker? What does that even mean? Those were important questions when we started talking about them and there are still important questions. And we keep pushing the envelope to look into what is the future of enterprise work?”

“The real goal of the center is to open conversations and to open minds. And even if we’re wrong, even if we write something that turns out to be wrong in two years, at least we’ve tried to shine a light towards the future and, more importantly, shine a light with people we want to serve.” 

Why you don’t have to worry about robots and automation

Paul explains that if you look at most media, there is an overwhelming sense of fear around technology and it’s difficult not to get caught up in that. Technology is powerful and our brains can’t resist some fearful messages being put out around us. That leaves us with a zeitgeist of fear. The hard truth, Paul explains, is that it’s not all going to be fine and there will be people who are impacted negatively because of technology. Yes, some jobs will go away. But on the bright side, Paul notes, those jobs are the monotonous ones that are highly routinized and don’t tap into the things that humans do well. So it’s okay to let those jobs go rather than resist change because if you’re constantly resisting, chances are pretty high you’ll end up on the wrong side of things. Instead, Paul recommends being open to new technologies and double down on human skills that will benefit a company more than those routine jobs. If we take that approach, the economy can be fantastic for more people because we can be more productive and able to add more interesting human elements to our work than ever before. That’s happening today, the question is how broadly and quickly it will scale. Learning to control and manage technology is something we’ve done throughout history. We change our skillset and adapt and that’s when things can get better. It’s a horrible lack of imagination that in the modern economy the same things won’t happen. We are driving. The bots are not driving, it’s us. And if we keep our hands on the wheel, this could be great fun.

“Some jobs will go away.? If you’re doing work that’s highly routinized, data-intensive that’s not leveraging what humans do really well — things like curiosity, creativity, empathy, judgment — machines don’t do that well and they won’t do it well anytime soon. So if you’re doing a job that, that fits those criteria, then you could be staring down at a pretty rough decade. But all the other work —which is most kinds of work — is liable to be enhanced by new technologies.” 

“Please don’t fear the bot because it’s about learning to control technology and manage technology just as we’ve done throughout history. We learned how to manage cars, we learned how to manage electric lights, and we learned how to manage electric washing machines. We changed our skill set and we adapted to these new tools and systems and overall things got better. I mean, it’s a horrible lack of imagination to think that in the modern economy we won’t have the same kind of processes emerging.” 

“We’re at an inflection point in technology where we’re ending the fear. I’m excited to put that history behind us and find a better way to deploy these machines.”

Why should we be hopeful?

Paul has a simple answer to this question: “We need to recognize the truth in the darkness, but I’m hopeful about humans. We’ve shown ourselves to be flawed, but we have a great degree of creativity and passion and I take hope in that.”

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Paul Roehrig, the head of strategy at Cognizant, joins IT Visionaries to discuss what digital means and what the future of work will look like.

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