On digital innovation & unions

It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while: how much should union leaders know about digital technology and the like?

The short version of this article is this: I think it is very important indeed for union leaders to be across new technologies, for both industrial and organisational reasons.

How much should union leaders know about “digital” innovation?

In the corporate sector, “digital” is an increasingly massive issue. Technology is not just disrupting traditional business models, but it is allowing the rapid concentration of power, influence, money and resources into even fewer hands.

New disruptive technologies, such as big data, artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing (the cloud), and the Internet of Things (IoT) have big impacts on national economies, not to mention global supply chains, culture, workers rights (of course) and more. And the pace of change is accelerating.

So what should union leaders know about all of this?

I certainly think that our movement does not have the luxury to do nothing, and we don’t have the time to simply try to muddle along, or hope that our core business is “disruption-proof” (it’s not).

I’ve also observed some skepticism about how much impact digital transformation and disruption will have on our movement, as well as skepticism about the nature and speed of the potential threats. The Centre for Future Work for example plays down the risks overall of technology to work, arguing that regardless of the technology, “work” will still be required (albeit more service work, including maintenance of the “robots”).

It’s certainly true that few union leaders see the major “unicorn” tech companies as any kind of real template or model for union innovation or disruption — “Uber for unions” anyone? And while the gig economy is growing, it is still a relatively small part of the job market in Australia.

Furthermore, most unions are cautious (understandably, given the complexity and cost) about undertaking any major transformation programs without the skills, financial support, investment model, staff, patience, and culture to succeed.

But despite these hurdles, I believe it is more important than ever for union leaders to be aware of, and more-or-less understand the risks and opportunities posed by new technology and digital transformation.

This is for two reasons:

Firstly, because of the potential disruption for members and their jobs. There’s no doubt that technology has massively changed a whole host of industries: it’s not just digital tech, but innovation generally tends towards “productivity” improvements — that is, labour-saving.

This is most evident in the telecommunications space, where fewer and fewer technicians are now needed to install and maintain telephone/internet services. The finance sector is also seeing the impact of technology-driven disruption; bank tellers are more or less replaced with apps, ATMs and AI-powered chat bots.

Each industry has its own dynamic of course, but even service sectors aren’t immune. Witness the rise of app-based rostering for NDIS and aged care nurses. While the actual “work” remains, the social relationships between employer and employee are being transformed.

Needless to say, in my view, union leaders must be needs to be aware and vested in the digital and technological innovations in their industries and sectors. A greater understanding allows the leadership to then distinguish the “noise” (of trends and buzzwords) from the signal.

Secondly, because of the risks and benefits for the union as an organisation/institution.

Unions cannot sit on the digital transformation sidelines. Most unions still use fairly out-dated, legacy systems for crucial things like membership databases, financial, HR and payroll systems. Increasingly, these are a millstone for unions, when it comes to costs and opportunity-costs. These legacy systems more often than not are an impediment to organising, growth and building power for working people.

Obviously, unions operate in a highly regulated environment, especially when it comes to finances and membership. Change is hard.

And there are a lot of shonks out there selling rubbish tech-products who see unions as an easy target. There’s no single technology that will deliver “innovation”, and the best tools will differ for a given union; without a better understanding of what’s possible, it is easy for to be conned by a company or consultant with a product to sell.

As leaders of the union movement, we need to lead this change, rather than be led. Something fundamentally important is happening, and for unions, what is happening may well be existential. It will be difficult to develop a strategy for your union if your leadership team are only tangentially aware of what is possible or what the risks are.

Back in 2016, Dave Oliver kick-started a conversation about innovation in the union movement. It was (and is) an important conversation: some unions took up the challenge (e.g. United Voice and NUW merging to create the UWU), but parliamentary elections and legislative threats, have more or less drained our enthusiasm to actually go through the hard slog of innovation.

Digital and technological transformation is about sweeping change. It changes everything about how industries operate, how services are delivered to members. It necessarily should force union leaders to rethink how our unions organise, how we communicate, how we manage our staff, our finances, how we store and access our information systems, as well as everything about the nature of our relationships with members.

Of course, there are unions who are experimenting with different tools or systems, trialling AI or cloud-based systems. And its good that this is happening (we really should share what is the results of using these tools better though.)

But that’s not enough.

It’s not about shiny new tech toys. Tinkering is insufficient.

We should be talking and thinking about this all the time, with our leadership teams, with our management committees, with our staff and organisers. We need to mobilise not just individual unions but the entire movement.

The threats, and the opportunities, are existential.

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