In 1989 a 17 year old Michael Chang defeated Stefan Edberg in the final at Roland-Garros to become the youngest male winner of a tennis Grand Slam title. Along with players like Pete Sampras, Chang was part of a wave of younger players who dominated men’s professional tennis from the late eighties through the nineties, by better utilising new technology.
What can professional tennis tell us about the effect of technology on our workforce?
In their recent paper Technological Change and Obsolete Skills: Evidence from Men’s Professional Tennis, Ian Fillmore and Jonathan Hall argue the introduction of larger composite racquets to replace wooden racquets was a ‘technological shock’ that had significant impact on the professional tennis workforce. In 1978 the Prince Pro racquet was released, providing players with an oversized racquet stiff enough to be used at the elite level. This allowed players to hit the ball harder with more topspin, putting a greater emphasis on power and athleticism. While this was of benefit to all players, those who learned the game using the new style of racquet were able to hone skills and develop techniques to better utilise the technology. When these players arrived at the professional level the average age of players succeeding in Grand Slam events dropped significantly. Older players struggled to compete, and were forced into early retirement. Over time the effect of the racquet technology diminished, and the age of players succeeding in Grand Slam events returned to that seen before adoption of the new racquets.
Earlier efforts have been made to study the effect of technology on a workforce, such as the introduction of tractors to farming in the 20th century. This research was complicated by the uncertainty over when tractors were introduced to different areas, the relatively slow adoption making it difficult to disentangle the effect of the technology from other factors. Men’s tennis provided a rich dataset of match results and player ages, where timing of the technology introduction was well known (much less data is available for female players during this time period, which is why Fillmore and Hall’s study only looks at men). If we allow ourselves to extrapolate the effect of technology in sport to our workplace, there are lessons we can take from this research.
Few industries have escaped significant technological change in recent years, so most businesses have a need to understand the impact of technology on their workforce. While Mark Zuckerberg might think “young people are just smarter”, a more useful way of thinking is that those with more experience using new technology will have a productivity advantage. This might mean that when hiring you should look for experience using an important new technology instead of overall job experience. You should certainly ensure existing staff have ample opportunity to learn and experiment with new technology. You need to do more than just seek out and adopt technology that increases productivity, you must invest time in optimising its use to realise the full advantage. We all need to have the courage to recognize when technology has made skills obsolete, and to seek understanding of skills relevant in the new technology landscape.
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