Working in the Digital Economy


The digital economy is classified as the fourth industrial revolution. Each industrial revolution has offered a new technology that significantly alters business model and human life in general. Previously, human depended on the agricultural industry which exploits natural resources. Afterwards, the transformation began with the invention of steam power, electricity, electronics, information and communication technology (ICT), up to the internet of things in the late 2000s (Maynard, 2015). Internet of things combine the extant technologies such as personal computers, web 1.0, and web 2.0 in an interconnected system. In such way, it will blur the distinction between software and hardware. As the ICT gets cheaper and becomes more accessible to wider people, the digital economy emerges (WEF, 2017).

Figure 1. Combinatorial Effects of Technology (WEF, 2017)

The implication of the fourth industrial revolution is workers must adapt to the digital technology. Since it harnesses the creative capability of human resources rather than natural resources, the term knowledge worker was used as the opposite to routine worker who works in rigid schedule and brick-and-mortar office (Colbert et al., 2016). Furthermore, knowledge worker emphasises on ‘embrained knowledge rather than embodies and embedded knowledge’ (Colbert et al., 2016, p.206).

The structure of the report is based on 3 aspects of working that are affected by the digital economy, namely: ‘(1) workplace; (2) workforce; and (3) manner of work’ (Greenfield, 2014, p.109). Finally, it explains some government’s public policies to adapt to the digital economic landscape.

Current physical work surrounding is highly different from the office 20 years ago. With the advancement of technology, we simplify almost the whole workplace into a single desk. This leads to a more flexible work environment. The flexibility is also assisted by virtual knowledge sharing platforms such as Trello and Google Drive so that workers can solve problems or tasks from several locations at the same time. On the other hand, with the emergence of virtual communication media such as Whatsapp and Google Hangout, the communication line is more structured even though the managers, workers, or clients do not engage in a face-to-face meeting (Colbert et al., 2016).

Furthermore, start-ups can minimise their operational cost because they do not require to establish its own physical workplace. Nowadays there are many co-working spaces thus start-ups or independent workers can get office facility without establishing official workplace. The system of the co-working spaces is desk or small room rent. Other common office facilities such as receptionist, meeting room, and even café can be used together. Moreover, it is also possible to do work from home or for a company to establish a modular office (Greenfield, 2014).

The key subjects of digital economy are interactivity and open content. The goal is to overcome physical barriers and create a borderless world so that people can connect with anyone with the same interest, no matter where they live (Lanzolla and Anderson, 2008). Even though the application of ICT seems simple, it requires complex management process. That is why, digital economy is responsible for generating many new occupations in the past few years such as social media marketer, content manager, data analyst, and user interface designer. As stated in OECD (2015, p.43) report, ‘employment in the ICT sector accounted for more than 14 million people, almost 3% of total employment in the OECD’ countries. However, the employment growth is still fluctuating.

Figure 2. ICT Sector and Total Employment Growth in the OECD Area (OECD, 2015)

Most of the digital workers are digital immigrants which mean that they recently learned to operate digital devices in their adulthood. They are different with the digital natives of the younger generation which already exposed to the digital environment since their early stage of life (Maynard, 2015). Besides digital literacy, World Economic Forum (2016) discovers 10 essential skills for knowledge workers in the digital age as shown in the diagram below. It conveys that creativity as the ability to produce knowledge is getting more important in the future.

Figure 3. Top 10 Workers' Skills (WEF, 2016)

With the transformation of workplace concept, the notions of self-employment and freelance are thriving. A report from Klair (2016) showed that self-employed and part-time workers trend increased dramatically in the beginning of 2014 and the number are predicted to keep rising. Currently, there is a total of 4.6 million self-employed workers in the UK only. In addition, there is also a concept of interim manager which offer non-permanent outsourced manager for short-term contract projects (Inkson et al., 2001)

Figure 4. Net Employment Growth in the UK (Klair, 2016)

Another change is happening in the recruitment process. It is getting easier because interview can be conducted via an online platform. Moreover, with the international trade collaboration, people can work anywhere. For example, approximately 89,000 Indian engineers dominate Silicon Valley’s start-up workers (Dave, 2015). Besides, the presence of online resume and portfolio websites such as Linkedin and Behance makes it more convenient for head-hunter to recruit some specific workers independently rather than creating job advertisement. Therefore, workers must pay attention to their personal branding in the online presence (Fottrell, 2016). Some websites like Freelance, Upwork, and Toptal also perform as platforms to connect workers to clients and vice versa (Johansson, 2015).

Flexible working constitutes in a task-specific approach rather than strict working hours. Workers are allowed to work anytime they want as long as the task will be finished on deadline (Colbert et al., 2016). The company also encourages their workers to be more proactive and find solutions together rather than executing an order in the top-bottom approach because it aspires for continuous improvement (Nonaka and Taekuchi, 1995).

However, the flexibility of digital workers has merged work and home and blurred the distinction between work and play (Greenfield, 2014). The drawback is they may confuse to distinguish between working time and leisure time. For instance, even after they arrive at home, they continue to do a working task or discuss the task via smartphone thus it may act as a distraction from their wellbeing and social life (Colbert et al., 2016).

It is important for every country to adapt with the dynamic of the industrial revolution. Nowadays many countries consider ICT as the driver for national economic growth. Considering this fact, the governments must formulate public policies to reinforce the development phase. The policy can be formulated based on the supply-side (producer) or the demand-side (consumer or user) as illustrated in the table below (Pick and Sharkar, 2015).

Figure 5. Classification of ICT Policies in Several Countries (Pick and Sarkar, 2015)

In general, the key objective of the policy is to prevent digital divide. The digital divide is the knowledge gap between the digital immigrants who require constant ICT education and the digital natives (Wong et al., 2009). Furthermore, according to United Nations (2012, as cited in Pick and Sarkar, 2015, p.338), ‘access to the internet is a basic human right’. Regarding this matter, most of the policies accentuate the development of network structure (e.g. faster fibre internet access) and provide supporting tools (e.g. free computers to school). With these programs, ICT is proclaimed to be inclusive and accessible for a whole range of social class. After the infrastructures are established, the government can do related training to improve digital literacy. Consequently, these programs will boost the quality of the forthcoming digital workers and prepare them to compete globally (Wong et al., 2009).

There are many positive impacts of the workers’ change in the digital economy. Some of them are time and space flexibility, the removal of labour’s boundaries to work internationally, and a desire of self-improvement that will also impact the company. The advantages lead to government policies to abolish digital divide and provide citizen with an inclusive environment. Furthermore, to be able to compete in the current economic landscape, workers must possess the required skills and adapt with the manner of work because change is inevitable.

This is an essay for Digital Transformation Assignment for Creative Industries and Cultural Policy Course at the University of Glasgow. Please provide proper citation if you use this as reference.

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