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Automation Is Coming: This Is How You and Your Organization Can Prepare for It

Transformation of the World Through Automation

A technological transformation of the global workforce through automation in the next few decades seems inevitable. Some see automation as evil machines that will steal everyone’s jobs and others see them as an opportunity to enhance people’s lives by freeing them from mundane, repetitive tasks.

We may have believed in the past that automation will only replace the repetitive physical tasks, but recent achievements in artificial intelligence (AI) has made it clear that it is capable of astonishing tasks associated with knowledge-based experts. IBM’s Watson is providing medical diagnosis based on analysis of millions of research papers and Google’s AlphaGo is beating the best players in the world at an abstract strategy game called Go. Go is an extremely complex board game played for millennia, but Google’s AI player was able to use brilliant and unconventional moves that virtually never would have been made by humans to consistently beat the best human players. AlphaGo showed the ability of AI to study the strategies and patterns crafted by humans over millennia through deep learning and evolve the game in just a few years. AI was able to break free of the patterns and biases that even the best human minds tend to get trapped in.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and co-founder of Tesla Inc., SolarCity, and PayPal, has expressed that automation and artificial intelligence will lead to significant job displacement in the next few decades. He believes that the impact of automation is so transformative that governments will be forced to introduce basic income, which is a concept that periodic cash payments will be unconditionally given to citizens without them having to perform any work. This is a serious enough possibility that this concept that is already being tested on a small-scale in various nations such as Finland, Kenya (as a philanthropic program), and the Netherlands to determine whether it can improve unemployment levels, physical and mental health, and quality of life.

Automation Impact on the Workforce

A study from McKinsey on automation estimates that automation and AI could have a much greater impact than the transformative technologies in the past.

Figure 1: Productivity Growth Estimates from Transformative Technologies

Technology

Timeframe

Productivity Growth

Steam Engine

1850-1910

0.3%

Early Robotics

1993-2007

0.4%

IT

1995-2005

0.6%

Automation

2015-2065

0.8-1.4%


A joint study conducted by Oxford University and Oxford Martin School estimates that 47% of jobs in the US are at risk of being automated in the next 20 years, and a report by McKinsey estimates that 45% of activities done by paid workers today can be automated by current technologies.

Jobs that are most likely to be automated are low-skill, repetitive tasks and physical activities in structured and predictable environments such as transportation and logistics, manufacturing, accommodation and food service, retail, and office and administrative support.

The advancements in AI and big data mean even highly skilled white-collar knowledge jobs could be at risk of being replaced, with Watson making medical diagnoses, robo-advisors providing financial advice, and machines text-mining thousands of legal documents. This comprehensive graph visualizes the analysis of potential automation of US jobs.

Key tasks, in the order of least to most susceptible to automation are managing others, applying expertise, stakeholder interactions, unpredictable physical work, data collection, data processing, and predictable physical work.

It’s Not the Job Being Automated, It’s the Activities

A key misconception that people have about automation is that it will start to replace entire jobs. Instead, the truth is that it is the individual activities will be automated. Most jobs have a multitude of activities that are performed to make up the job, with each activity having different degrees of susceptibility to automation. Based on currently available technologies, less than 5% of occupations can be considered for full automation and replacement. However, almost every job, including physicians, senior executives, and CEOs, have potential for partial automation. McKinsey estimates about 60% of occupations can have over 30% of its activities automated with current technologies.

It’s not the jobs being automated, it’s the activities within the jobs, and this will lead to transformation of entire business processes and the need to redefine jobs, career paths, workforce management, and culture to complement the capabilities of machines. People will have certain components of their job automated, but this can provide them an opportunity to take part in more proactive and innovative work.

How You and Your Organization Can Be Ready

Automation cannot be seen through the perspective of humans vs. computers. To stay competitive, we need to embrace the possibilities enabled by AI and automation and determine how to best integrate the strengths of the computer’s capabilities with the human skills that the computers cannot yet replicate.

Although automation has shown incredible potential, there are still many areas that are difficult to automate, such as managing and developing people, creative work, and goal setting and decision making. In an organization, automation can free up skilled individuals from repetitive work to allow them to focus on higher-value work utilizing their expertise. It is estimated that over 20% of a CEO’s time can be freed up through automation, which could be used for analyzing reports, making decisions, critical thinking, and strategic planning in nuanced, unpredictable environments.

Recommendations

  • As an individual, it is critical to focus on developing leadership, creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, collaboration, and social skills – skills that computers have not yet developed – to make yourself invaluable to the organization by working in coordination with the technology.
  • As leaders of IT organizations, it is crucial to always keep track of the progress of emerging data and automation technologies. Engage with business executives to help them understand the benefits and the costs of automation and how it impacts staff skill requirements and development. In the future, the competitive differentiator for companies will be in how leaders manage the organizational impact of automation on processes and culture, and the ability to gain trust from employees that the new technologies will help elevate them and not replace their jobs.
  • In your own organization, identify all the activities that take place and create a heat map of the activities, showing their potential for automation to help prioritize the simplest and most repetitive activities. For the top candidates, sketch out the redesigned processes with automation incorporated and consider how the relevant roles will be affected. Create a roadmap that gradually phases in the changes, with short-term, quick-win fixes that management could learn from to guide the implementation of larger scale, long-term solutions later in the roadmap.
  • Even though the benefits of automation are typically assumed to outweigh the cost by three to ten times, it is crucial to consider automation on a case-by-case basis and ensure that it fits your organization. Do not automate for the sake of automation, but instead develop a capability for effectively deciding, implementing, and managing automation, which will become a crucial competitive advantage. Concentrate on the benefits that can be gained from improvements in productivity, quality, safety, and reliability as opposed to focusing on cutting labor costs of low-wage workers.

Bottom Line

The masters that played Google’s AI Go player AlphaGo have expressed that their skills in Go have elevated significantly as a result of playing against the computer. AI has shown them new possibilities and unconventional solutions that eluded the game’s strategy for millennia. Automation and AI is not our enemy, but a powerful technology we must strive to work in tandem with to bring about new innovation.

Do not fear automation as something that will completely replace our jobs. Automation will replace some of the repetitive and predictable activities within jobs, but it is crucial to view this as an opportunity to spend the freed-up time on higher value-add work such as innovation and strategic planning. Focus on developing and fostering creativity, emotional intelligence, decision making, and people skills that complement the technology to make yourself and the organization competitive in the changing workforce and industry.


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