Recent months have seen news headlines that could have been plucked from an Isaac Asimov novel, or Wachowski blockbuster script, rather than the pages of The Guardian or The Times. But this is not fiction.

This February The European parliament will vote on draft proposals regarding robots’ rights, including the introduction of a new ‘electronic personhood’ status and registry for advanced autonomous robots.

The review comes amid mounting concern around the role of technology in society, particularly the extent to which robots and automated systems will replace people in the workplace in coming years. In a bid to allay fears, MEPs have suggested a ‘robot tax’ to ensure companies pay their dues on their automated workforce’s output in the same way they would with flesh and blood employees, theoretically discouraging mass unemployment.

While this idea has been met with some initial scepticism, it raises interesting questions. How else might governments encourage businesses to retain their human workforce in the face of automated alternatives? More importantly how can we build an economy that creates worthwhile, fulfilling jobs for as many people as possible, while remaining competitive in a global economy?


The skill dichotomy

Some academics, including Dr Robert Goldman, believe that AI will come to replace even some skilled workers in the not too distant future. This may even include the more basic work done by doctors and lawyers, as algorithms work quickly and consistently to problem solve, diagnose diseases and prove legal precedents. If we accept this theory, how can we fill the employment void robots would then make? How can we build an economy for the next generation entering this new, increasingly automated world of work?

I believe that small businesses, and specifically those selling niche, highly skilled services, can be part of the answer. We know the UK struggles to compete on price for low skilled services in global markets and it is likely that some higher-skilled services are going to be automated – so there’s a logical advantage in focusing on those niche skills that demand a human presence. It’s an area that the UK has shown great potential in, with eight per cent of the £6.2 billion UK consultancy industry already being made up of small consultancies.

Niche service businesses that involve truly bespoke problem solving could be great future job-creators, as these services demand both innately human bespoke problem-solving and the trusted relationships that – as yet – we can’t imagine robots mimicking. This might range from creative agencies such as designers and advertisers, or businesses that require empathy and understanding such as HR advisors or leadership trainers.

Growing pains

However niche business-to-business SMEs face a real challenge when it comes to scaling up. Consultancies of any kind sell their time and expertise, making people their greatest asset. A good employee in a small agency can make the difference between that crucial piece of new business coming in or not. Not to mention delivering great work and retaining clients.
What’s more, by the nature of consultancy jobs, employees need very bespoke skills. Once you branch into the more unusual sectors, the pool of candidates with the exact experience required shrinks dramatically, so employers need to be able to spot transferrable skills when recruiting or run the risk of missing out on talent.

Hiring poses an additional challenge, because of the need for great people at short notice. Most B2B business leaders crave a smooth growth curve, as it’s the easiest way to work with their operational challenges. Yet the reality of growth opportunities in small consultancy businesses is much more volatile. With a fairly small number of clients each paying large sums, one new client won (or lost) can make a significant impact, requiring new staff at the drop of a hat. The key is being ready to grow when the moment comes.


Seizing the opportunity

Having worked with many consultancies that have successfully scaled I’ve seen a number of tactics to ride out these choppy business conditions, such as creating an effective freelancer network, and turning proactive new business into a constant effort, rather than one which gets turned on when the pipeline dries up. Another common factor amongst these success stories is simply making the active decision to grow.

I’ve previously explored ways consultancies can maximise their profitability by monitoring data closely and setting smart KPIs, while streamlining operations can also help making this kind of niche consultancy a lower risk for potential clients and talent respectively.

Consultancies can only ever be one part of the to answer to the wider employment challenges coming our way through the dual challenges of technology and globalisation – but like so many of the UK’s small businesses they are full of potential. What’s critical is ensuring they have the resilience to make the most of volatile growth, rather than simply enduring its challenges.


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