A Turing Test for the workplace professions

One of the ideas we’re going to hear about a lot over the next few years is the Turing Test. It describes the point at which a machine’s behaviour becomes indistinguishable from a human’s, so that a typical person is unable to work out if he or she is interacting with a machine or an individual. This matters for lots of reasons; functional, philosophical and ethical. While it is the kicking off point for  dramas such as Westworld (pictured) and Humans that explore our new relationship with machines, we’re most likely to encounter it at first with the automation of mundane things like customer service and information. Indeed, its creator Alan Turing first defined it as an issue of language and communication. Of course, somebody getting annoyed at an automated help desk won’t make drama as appealing as the idea of a robot theme park, but that’s life.

Something akin to the Turing Test is about to become important in the workplace. The erosion of the demarcations between the people responsible for the built, technological and cultural workplace means that it is less important whether you are talking to somebody with a background in facilities management, HR or IT. Indeed it will become impossible to tell, and irrelevant anyway.

That is not to say that this won’t create challenges but they will not be of any particular interest to the people who occupy the workplace in any of its facets. Just as the person chatting to a legal help desk won’t know or care whether they are interacting with a bot or a bod, so it will become irrelevant which profession makes decisions about the workplace. In the end, the outcome is likely to be a new discipline, based on an amalgam of the various professions, and we are already seeing the advent of managers who will assume responsibility for weaving the strands of building, technology and culture to create a cohesive infrastructure for people to work within. The people who do the job are already amongst us and we cannot tell and we do not care what’s on their CV.

The challenges related to this will be of most interest to the various professional sectors involved. The current profession that seems likely to inject most of the DNA into any new order is HR. Anecdotally, I understand that HR managers are now increasingly likely to make decisions about the built environment that were once the sole preserve of FM. The reasons for this are clearly that they are closer to the main challenges facing the modern workplace and they are already closer to the boardroom. Theirs is the most natural fit. There are facilities managers who operate at this level, but they are in the minority.

The facilities management sector would clearly like to assume this mantle, but it has a number of problems that it seems unable to address. Not least of these is that, even after several decades, it has yet to work out what its purpose is. For all that it makes noises about driving the idea we now refer to as ‘workplace’, and for all that it points at things like The Stoddart Review, it can’t achieve much while it maintains its perpetual existential navel gazing and penchant for running down blind alleys.

It also seems to assume it has a natural right to define the new era and that workplace is a subset of facilities, when the truth is that it is the other way around. The built environment is just part of the puzzle and technology and culture fit alongside the office building, not within.

The FM sector is not helped in any of this by being represented in the UK by the omnishambles known as the British Institute of Facilities Management. As I said in a podcast with Ian Ellison recently, the BIFM is drawn to the idea of workplace, but is then thrown back into the orbit of management and maintenance. I would even argue that this is its natural telos, or purpose, and that this is in itself a high calling that it has yet to claim as its own.

Maybe the BIFM has been suckered into believing, as many have, that maintenance is somehow less worthy than creativity. The most powerful piece of writing I’ve seen challenging this assumption in many years was published in Aeon fairly recently. Nobody can doubt the importance of innovation, but it’s always worth remembering the professionals who make the world function. They are at least as important as the innovators.

Of course, all of this is of little interest to the people who inhabit the workplace. Just as they will remain unconcerned about the provenance of the algorithm that determines their interaction with an automated service, so too they will be ambivalent about the professional background of the people who create and maintain the various cultural, digital and physical facets of the places they work. Workplace professionals will need to pass their own Turing Test if they are to define this new era.

Share Button