When Marketing Is Good and Tyler Cowen Is Wrong about the Robot Economy

How smart software is enabling campus IT units to shift focus.

August 2, 2017

In his article, In a Robot Economy, All Humans Will Be Marketers, Tyler Cowen writes:

"The fear that robots, or more generally smart software, will put us all out of work is one of dominant economic memes of our time. But that fear is misplaced. We’re unlikely to see mass unemployment; rather, workers will shift into new economic sectors -- albeit with transition pains -- as has always been the case. The real risk is that the robots will push too many of us into less socially productive jobs -- especially those in marketing."

Cowen thinks that this will be a bad result, as marketing in his eyes is a "a zero- or negative-sum game”.  In this view, marketing is mostly about getting customers to switch from one company to another.  No real value is added.

It’s amazing to me that someone as smart as Tyler Cowen can get this story so exactly backwards.

Rather than decrying a technologically driven shift to the work done by people in marketing, Cowen should be exalting in this trend.  After all, another name for marketing is communications - and anything that enables more communication to occur will be good for everyone.

We need to look no further than how higher ed IT (information technology) is changing to see why the evolution of robots - or really smart software - is a good thing.

Higher ed IT units are rapidly moving to a model where collaboration with faculty and other campus groups is prioritized.  Academic IT professionals are becoming more visible - working to develop relationships with campus partners to collaboratively solve challenges.  We are seeing this in realms of teaching, research and student success - where IT professionals are at the table working with colleagues from across the institution on improving services and outcomes.

This is a change from when academic IT folks were mostly invisible - working to make sure that the campus technology infrastructure was running (networks, e-mail, servers, etc.) - and then being called upon when something broke.

Today, more of the IT operations of our campuses are being transferred to the cloud.  The robots that Cowen talks about are software as a service (SaaS) platforms that higher ed is increasingly utilizing for core productivity, finance, and instructional tasks.

The shift from producing IT services to consuming IT services has enabled information technology professionals to spend more time on communications and collaborations.  They are doing the creative relational work that Cowen thinks of as marketing, but engaging in these tasks in order to proactively add value to work of their institutional stakeholders.

Less time maintaining the hardware and software of on-premise servers and applications means more time to listen to the needs of faculty.  The work of teaching and discovery - education and scholarship - is increasingly computationally intensive.  So much of what we do today in higher education depends on technology.

Higher ed IT people are shifting how they work so that their organizations - and organizational culture - are much more closely aligned to those of academic culture.  This shift is all about collaboration, visibility, and transparency.  The more of the daily operational tasks that can be shifted from production to consumption,  the more time that campus IT people will have to engage in the hard work of collaboration.

This way of thinking about marketing as something different than selling - and to recognize that robots will enable more people to spend more time communicating and collaborating - should allow us think differently about automation.  In every aspect of work we need more people with the time and ability to engage in communication and collaboration. 

We need more people with marketing skills, not less.

Do all economists misunderstand the shift that robots will have on the future of work, or is Tyler Cowen an outlier?


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