Wanted: knowledge workers

A new report predicts upheaval in the financial services industry. Mark Vernon reports
A new report makes shocking predictions about the future of employment in the financial services industry, with information technology at the heart of the ructions to be felt. "Tomorrow's People", from research group Create, predicts that by the end of the decade, 125,000 clerical and managerial jobs will be shed across the country. Involving 28 per cent of the workforce, a shift of this scale has no precedent in the sector. As part of the same process, 113,000 new jobs will be created. But these opportunities do not map on to the forementioned losses. It is in the difference that lies the story of sweeping change.

Automation and competition are driving a transformation in the workplace. On the one hand, many of the tasks in the back offices of banks and insurance companies, which formerly saw employees doing little more than laboriously keying in data, are being automated by computers. Redundancies are an inevitable consequence.

In the front office, competition places a premium on quality of service, so that customers are retained, and it is in this area that the new jobs will be created. However, the skills required here, which include an ability to work dynamically and imaginatively with computers, are far more demanding than the manual tasks of the back office.

Professor Amin Rajan, the study's principal author, focuses on the impact of IT. He says the mode of production in these enterprises is entering a new phase with the turn of the millennium, when "agility", his preferred alternative to "virtuality", will be key. The term embodies a number of issues. First, it means a rejection of the logic of the legacy system, the centralised, hierarchical computer with which many enterprises find themselves lumbered and left with inefficiency and frustration. "Legacy thinking automates existing bureaucracies which have little to do with sharing information and working in teams," he says. "What people need to do now is build systems around processes rather than the other way round."

However, companies are not in a position simply to dump the substantial investment bound up in these legacy systems, and so to manage the financial upheaval such change requires, key back office functions are outsourced.

In the front office, it is the knowledge worker who will succeed. The new jobs will go to those with higher education, networking skills and entrepreneurial flair. But these people are in short supply. David Field, of IT consultancy TCA, says, "Many banks are having a great problem recruiting bright knowledge workers. And we, too, as suppliers of IT services, are facing a strategic problem as we seek to recruit from the same pool."

Field believes that as a commodity in short supply, the knowledge worker of tomorrow can expect very attractive terms and conditions, working shorter hours and from home if they choose. But Rajan suggests that there is a price to pay. "Jobs for life are gone. But job security can be found when it is based upon performance and not paternalism. Employees need to see employers as customers of their services. And there is a vital need for ongoing skills development."

The ability to work creatively with new computer programs will be essential for the knowledge worker. Gone will be the strait-jacket applications that hold agents to preset tasks. Instead, multimedia interfaces will offer users a free range of tools that enable transparent access to information right across the enterprise, build personalised business processes and workflow rules, and that facilitate communication with other members of the organisation for the purposes of collaboration and knowledge sharing.

But Rajan remains cautious about the ability of these technologies alone to transform the workplace. He believes that an entirely new mindset must be born to business. "IT promises have not been delivered and in my view will not be delivered for another 10 years," he says. "The problem is that business operates as if the corollary to the belief that knowledge is power is that knowledge should not be shared. Within this culture everyone works sub-optimally"

"Tomorrow's People", pounds 49.50, Create (01892 526757).