UPSC MAINS 2015 ESSAY NO. 5: Technology cannot Replace Manpower

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“Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.”

Jacques Ellul

“If you want to plant for a year, plant corn; if you want to plant for ten years plant trees; and if you want to plant for hundred years, plant men.”

Chinese proverb

Modern age is an age of technology. Technology has led to progress of civilization. It has made human life more comfortable by giving support to each and every activity. Technology, nevertheless, is developed and applied by human beings and not the other way round. It helps us to enhance productivity, improve working conditions and quality of life by providing variety of industrial machines, household gadgets, faster modes of transport and variety of avenues for entertainment and information. It has also helped us in fighting fatal and life threatening diseases and improving health and life expectancy. The question of replacing manpower by technology comes to our mind for tackling the problem of scarcity of labour, rising wages, peculiar situations where manpower faces adverse and harsh conditions or even threats to life and also in places where high level of precision is needed. But technology cannot replace manpower. Technology can give us machines, but manpower drives the machines. Machines follow the commands that manpower gives and can be used according to the will, skill and intent of manpower. Manpower will always remain the superior power.

Although the discovery of fire or invention of wheel are the two great technological symbols that led to progress of human civilization from ancient times, the advent of modern technological age followed the industrial revolution. It was the invention of steam engine and various machines for production and modes of transport that led to material progress and improvement in the quality of life. The industrial revolution saw increase in mill production and profit of the owners of capital. Although it helped the manpower to increase productivity, it also led to deterioration in the working and living conditions of the workforce due to the greed of capitalists and exploitation of labour. In due course of time, labour force organized itself in trade unions and bargained higher wages and better living. The advent of welfare state and communism also helped to improve the plight of the labour force. Manpower became the focus of development in the post second world war period when Japan and Germany showed that efficient use of resources and technology leads to progress and prosperity. The Nobel Prize winners Arthur Lewis and Schulz have shown in their studies that development of human resources holds the key to economic growth and social progress. Mahbub-Ul Haq has rightly said that earlier we were taking care of growth so that it will take care of people; now the time has come that we take care of people, it will take care of growth.

The importance of technology increased in the world where competition for economic and military hegemony defined the new world order. The material progress of Western Europe and the United States is attributed in the first instance to their excellence in technology. To a great extent their military dominance is also due to their superiority in defense technology. But in all these processes they did not ignore their manpower. With material progress and military superiority, these societies also developed their manpower by spending huge sums of money on health, nutrition and education of their population. The actual superiority of advance nations lies in the superiority of manpower. Their man power is capable of research and development, innovation and discoveries and thus they remain ahead of world in trade, commerce, industrialization and even in military affairs.

Technology can be best developed and used only when man power is capable. Capacity creation is not about creating plants and equipment or infrastructure, but also manpower suitable for operating various systems efficiently. Shortage of manpower can impede production, poor quality of manpower lead to loss of competitiveness, dissatisfied manpower can lead to lockouts and spurt in trade unionism and even social tensions. If manpower is not developed properly, it can also throttle research and development.

Technology and manpower could be seen not as substitutes but as complements to each other. Industrialization in Japan and Korea and agricultural progress in post green revolution period in the world are examples of how technology can accelerate production and productivity. Rising incomes, however, were sustained by improving the manpower through skill formation, training and education, health and nutrition in the western countries or even in the Asian Tigers of South East and East Asia. Both are symbiotic.

India and China became independent almost about the same time. And India was ahead of China in many respects at that time. But in due course of time China succeeded in industrialization because of its focus on development of skilled manpower. Today China is the manufacturing hub of the world and now it is transforming itself from low-end technological products to high-end technological products. It is today seeing technological breakthroughs in telecommunication and mobile technologies and also its capacity for implementing difficult projects. It has developed nuclear and military technology of world standard. All because it focused on the development of manpower. Today China is the largest spender on R&D in the world. Manpower development is still the main priority when China is pursuing a policy of moderate growth and rebalancing.

India on the other hand lagged behind despite being rich in natural resources and an early advantage in many areas. India could not remove illiteracy and create skills as fast as China did. So it lagged behind in both- agriculture and industrialization as well as research and development. Pallam Raju rightly pointed out that while China succeeded in transferring nearly 150 million people from agriculture to manufacturing, we could not do so, due to lack of skilled manpower.

Technological development depends on manpower; its uses too depend on it. Productivity increases because of innovation and better use of new technology. But behind all this, there is an efficient manpower. Paul J Meyer rightly says that Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort. There is no single development, in either technology or management technique, which by itself promises even one order-of-magnitude improvement within a decade in productivity, in reliability, in simplicity. It is the education level, training, skill and dedication of manpower, which makes it possible. Julia Gillard rightly says that our future growth relies on competitiveness and innovation, skills and productivity and these in turn rely on the education of our people.

The happiness and satisfaction of manpower is very important for increasing productivity. In the post industrial revolution phase in Europe and Post Green Revolution period in India, there appeared a tendency to substitute labour by machines due to rising wages and labour disputes. But this trend was criticized for both being inexpedient as well as anti people. Any growth in productivity should lead to rise in living standards, and this is possible by increasing employment and not by substitution of labour. Even there is a limit to substitution as machines cannot have the capacity to plan and decide beyond what is fed in their software. It has been shown by many experiments that improved payment and perquisites have a very positive effect on productivity. Employees who report receiving recognition and praise within the last seven days show increased productivity, get higher scores from customers, and have better safety records. They’re just more engaged at work. There is no exaggeration in saying that even profitability comes from loyalty, productivity, and having a character base from which to work. Human resources are at the heart of productivity and profitability. Employee loyalty begins with employer loyalty. Your employees should know that if they do the job they were hired to do with a reasonable amount of competence and efficiency, you will support them.

Technology alone is not sufficient for realizing the goals of progress and prosperity. Management is very important. This is true for both- nations as well as corporations. Management is a human act. Stephen Covey rightly says, “Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.”Technology and automation are very important for enhancing productivity and efficiency. But use of technology requires certain cautions. Bill Gates for example says, “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” Who will decide about an efficient operation? Manpower, and none else!

Technology is an enhancer, a facilitator, but it cannot replace manpower. The man behind an idea and the man behind the machine are very important. Technology can support, it cannot supplant. It reminds us the statement of Jack Welch, “The idea flow from the human spirit is absolutely unlimited. All you have to do is tap into that well. I don’t like to use the word efficiency. It’s creativity. It’s a belief that every person counts.” Those who devise better methods of utilizing manpower, tools, machinery, materials and facilities are making real contributions. Japan has shown the way how manpower and technology can be synchronized to be an industrial giant without local resources and now China is following suit. All the modern wars, especially Korean War show quite clearly that in major conflict manpower is as important as horsepower. Technology brings the excitement; helps look into the future, and make us brave enough to try to shape it. The whole idea is not about the choice between using or not using technology. The challenge is to use it right. One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man. Somebody pointed out that humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons. It’s supposed to be automatic, but actually you have to push the button. Manpower including the leader is very important in the use of technology for peace and prosperity. Today technology is considered to be a panacea of all the maladies, which it is not. Human discretion and vision will always remain important and so will manpower. For the time being, in the words of Albert Einstein, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”