A lot of people are forced to change careers during the pandemic crisis. Could this crisis be a wake-up call and adapt our way of thinking about digital transformation?

Hungary may have jumped ahead ten years in the slow process of digital transformation in the workplace and in education as an effect of the coronavirus pandemic crisis. To discuss this sudden change, we asked two Hungarian experts about the challenges the country faces in the era of Industry 4.0.

Adrián Angyal is a Cybersecurity & Privacy Manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), while Árpád Rab is an Associate Professor at the Corvinus University of Budapest.

Automation, digitalisation were hot topics even before the coronavirus, there were many predictions about how these processes will affect the job market in the near future. Does this crisis speed up or slow down the changes brought by Industry 4.0?

Árpád Rab: I think it speeds them up. There is a forced digital transformation going on in Hungary and the whole world right now. Industry 4.0, Artificial Intelligence – we already talked about these issues even before the virus. If we had listened to the environmental groups, we would have done exactly the same what we are doing right now: travelling less, staying home more, increasing the use of bicycles for transport, managing our resources better and spreading distance work and learning.

However, the coronavirus – besides its many other effects – started a very strong wave of digital transformation. This is amazing because during this quarantine you were not isolated. Even if you were living alone, you could keep in touch with others, work or study. This is unprecedented in the history of quarantines. On the other hand, this is a very sudden transformation, we were not prepared for it, and so it will increase inequalities in society. Those who cannot access distant learning find themselves left out of education. Those who did not have a job or weren’t proficient with computers now have even lower chance to find employment.

This current crisis will end, but the long-term trends will not change. There is no doubt about the direction we are moving forward in. In Hungary, education had to go digital over a weekend which was a huge challenge. It also brought about many ideas and a lot of innovation. The same is true for distance working. I am sure that a lot more people want or can work and study from home now, than two months ago. The question is if everybody benefits from this trend or not.

Adrián Angyal: I agree. It is speeding up, but the question is how many of these changes will stay with us. I always say that we should stay rational about this. If it is not necessary to be present at a meeting then we should not be. Let us also consider the environmental footprint [of going to the office]. Business leaders, who previously would not accept their employees to work from home, now they were forced to try and adapt to this situation. There was no other way, they had to send people home and this changed many ingrained, irrational attitudes [towards home office].

The question is if these two months were enough to change 10 to 20 years of habits. Technology does not choose to be used, it is people who decide so.

There is a general aversion to change processes and tools that companies are used to, even if there is a much better new technology available. Was this psychological barrier torn down by the coronavirus crisis?

Adrián Angyal: I think it was. This was the moment when business leaders who were previously keeping their distance from over the top communication platforms like Skype were forced to use these tools to hold meetings.

Árpád Rab: A company that is disorganized will collapse if it has to change to distance working. But those companies which can delegate tasks and hold people accountable will survive and may get the competitive advantage to become successful.

A lot of people were forced to change careers, many of them are thinking about becoming programmers. Could it be that this crisis will solve the shortage of coders in Hungary?

Adrián Angyal: Those who were very far away from becoming programmers may have been pushed closer to becoming one, but they still have a lot to learn. Becoming a coder is not a be-all and end-all solution. For example, a waiter who was very good at what he was doing won’t suddenly start to get into the cutting edge literature of programming from one day to the other. But it is not impossible, of course.

We have to decide if we want people to do things that could be easily automated, or we are willing to sacrifice some of these jobs [to automation]. This is an investment, and this is where forward-thinking education policies come in. I really hope that we have people in Hungary who are thinking about this strategically. I hope they see that some people may be hard to retrain, meanwhile some people – even in their 50’s – are very enthusiastic about becoming programmers.

Árpád Rab: There are people who want to work in the IT sector and this is ok. But we have to keep in mind that there are huge differences between the levels of IT jobs. I do not want to degrade the value of any of these of course. However, there is a difference between an IT administrator who is responsible for three servers and a printer and somebody who is required to develop Artificial Intelligence.

Also, it is one thing to know a programming language and to use it reliably, but that doesn’t mean that you can also coordinate your work with a client. So there are a lot of different roles, that’s all I wanted to say.  A short course can only provide entry-level knowledge.

Do you think this crisis is a wake-up-call for Hungary to start thinking seriously about the potential effects of Industry 4.0 on the economy?

Adrián Angyal: There are many different types of automation, not just in manufacturing. Maybe the big car companies have outdated accounting practices. One department may be copying data manually from Excel spreadsheets. This crisis could turn the spotlight to these working processes that could be automated. Especially in those areas where human interaction is not involved.

The question is what do business leaders think about automation, and whether these two months were enough to scare decision-makers into thinking responsibly about these issues.

Árpád Rab: We already knew that jobs will be outsourced to robots and software. Everybody talks about this in Hungary in the education, state and business sectors. Half of the conferences in the last two years were organised around this topic. There is nothing wrong with this.

Education is the only way to counterbalance this. It is possible to be always a step ahead and to teach the ability to learn, so people can always find a job either operating a manufacturing robot or managing the factory itself. But our education system is stuck in one place, it is not practical enough, it is not fast enough.

Our competitive advantage is that we have workers who handle machines as well as the workers in Western Europe, but our workers do it cheaper. At the moment machines don’t do the job cheaper since their development is still very expensive. But we can see that they will do it cheaper in five to six years. We have to prepare for this. We should start to educate people [so they can adapt to this change].

Before the coronavirus crisis, we were saying that you cannot change this quickly, Hungarians just can’t switch to the home office. Now we see that they can. The Hungarian job market needs huge shocks [in order to change], otherwise, it will face great problems in five years.

So did the crisis induce a long-term change in our way of thinking about digital transformation?

Árpád Rab: I think we jumped ten years ahead in the otherwise slow process of digital transformation. Of course, this is not the best way to do it, but Humanity only learns when it gets slapped in the face. But this is a very minor slap, despite the economic recession that will follow.

Adrián Angyal: There will be change, and this is going to speed up. This is going to be a defining experience for all of us, we are going to tell stories about what we went through for years at grill parties, in the classrooms, at the office. We will ask: “Do you remember when we were in quarantine?” We can, and we should build on this. Let us use this common experience as a point of reference.

 

 

This interview is part of the #DemocraCE project.

#DemocraCE Fellow. Freelance journalist, editor and videographer


Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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