The Power Loom and Fairness



James Hargreaves was a creative weaver who worked in Lancashire England in the mid 18th century. He is one of the people credited with the invention of the “spinning jenny”, which was a multi-spindle weaving machine, that lined up 8 wooden spindles at one end. With the advent of the steam engine at the start of the industrial revolution, the spinning jenny evolved into the power loom. The power loom had a tremendous impact on the workforce of the time. Spinners were put out of work, and most weavers, unable to keep pace with the new output, were also put out of work. The best weavers who could adapt were rock star employees. Fredrich Engels wrote extensively about this, including sections of the Communist Manifesto. This was the era where the Luddites were sabotaging factories and a landmark time at the beginning of the industrial revolution. 

"Hey, Ned – do you have time to talk? I wanted to let you know that on Monday, we anticipate the arrival of a new power loom. You’ve done some great work for us as a spinner for many years, but as you probably have heard, this new technology will spin as much as 10 to 20 times faster than you can, and it never gets tired. The steam engine is an amazing invention. 

"Thanks, boss – I figured this time was coming. What about Rebecca? She’s been weaving as long as I have been spinning, but it seems like she’s getting promoted when this new loom arrives." 

"Well Ned, I want to be fair, but honestly, the machine replaces your job, not Rebecca’s. Those clever folks down in the lab haven’t figure out how to automate the weaver’s work yet, though I suspect someday they will." 

"Can I get training to learn to be a weaver?" 

"Absolutely Ned."  

Just as IBM’s Watson was able to be Gary Kasparov in chess in the 1990s, then DeepMind defeated the top Go player Ke Jie in 2017, AI and automation will not replace every job at the same time. HR professionals need to work with managers to help ensure people are treated fairly. It will be confusing to employees why some jobs are being eliminated and not others.  

More importantly, HR professionals can work today with employees whose jobs are repetitive and predictable, knowing that at some point, these will be susceptible to being eliminated by automation and technology. Retraining and re-skilling now in preparation for a future that involves advanced automation will allow HR professionals to have more impact in creating a healthy organization made of humans and machines.  

At any given time, life may not feel fair. HR professionals and people managers can take a human approach, filled with kindness and empathy – to help those who are most at risk. It is important for HR professionals to help people managers learn what benefits are available. Are their funds for retraining?  

It’s also critical for HR professionals to be responsive. This is an existential moment for employees. Waiting a day to reply to an email can cause a lot of anxiety for employees. 

Those displaced by the power loom didn’t have the benefit of the modernized HR departments that we have today. This is a call for HR professionals to be empathetic and responsive – to help employees who might be displaced by technology to land on their feet. 

Read other posts in this series.


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