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Automation technologies: what do they mean for the workforce?

by Chris McKibbin on 27 Sep 2017
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With the influx of automation technologies, we find ourselves continually surrounded by screaming headlines:

Analysts and consulting firms (and maybe divorce lawyers!) smell blood in this new wave of revenue generation panic.

I see more and more organisations looking for the kind of skills to transform organisations’ operational delivery. Similarly, they’re looking for leaders who can help their workforce through a fundamental shift in how they operate and deliver their services. It’s clear that organisations themselves believe this gear-shift is real, so are these the classic traits of a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Replacing human labour

Manufacturers have a long tradition of automation technologies and replacing human labour with robotic devices, and this trend is spilling over into other industries. People-heavy sectors like financial services have been quick to adopt. ANZ Bank have recently announced that they have 2,000 bots responsible for working on 85% of their processes, which has helped them avoid 34 regulatory breaches over the past couple of years. They’re now seeking to increase their bot army to 12,000.

Professional classes are not immune to the effects of automation – knowledge will not necessarily afford the protection it once did. Economists Richard and Daniel Susskind posit two futures: one reassuringly familiar – a more efficient version of what we have today; and another much more transformational one – a gradual replacement of professionals by increasingly capable systems.

Accountants run a 95% risk of automation in the next 10-20 years. When professional work is broken down into its constituent tasks, many of these turn out not to be so complex after all, and can be done by less qualified people with the support of systems, or indeed, machines.

Staff morale

On first blush, all this looks to be hugely destructive to workforce morale. While it would be naïve to skirt around the issue of redundancy, there is evidence to show that collaboration with automation technologies often actually engenders a greater feeling of worth for the individuals concerned. With mundane, monotonous tasks removed from their daily workload, workers can focus on more rewarding parts of their jobs.

Greater focus for employees

A different type of workforce is starting to emerge. In contact centres for instance, agents no longer have to worry about routine elements like customer identification and verification, or wrapping calls. They may not even need to have specialist knowledge because all this can be fed to them by smart systems enabling them to work across multiple services lines. Agents can just focus on the human interaction and satisfaction – the part that people remember.

In the coming years, everyone who needs expertise or knowledge will have some cognitive assistance – be that students, teachers, financial workers, analysers of information or decision makers. This will augment and advance workers, rather than replace them.

The automated workforce

How the automated workforce is organised raises other interesting questions. Will employment be based on contracts for multiple projects that draw on expertise in automation? How is the so-called ‘digital workforce’ managed, including hybrid teams of software bots and human agents?

All are questions that will come to light in years to come. But we can conclude that the heart of good automation is looking at where humans and technologies strengths can really be best applied, and combining them, to improve and refine effectiveness. Rigour and accuracy at volume and at pace are often best suited to softwares. Creativity, so-called “large-frame thinking” and decisioning (outside of pre-defined rules) are best left to humans.

There is little doubt that automation technologies will fundamentally reshape the organisations we work in and are served by, and this will present business leaders with challenges and opportunities in equal measure. I’ll look at this in the concluding part of this mini-series.

Chris McKibbin is the Future Solutions Lead at Capita plc, focussing on the pragmatic application of automation and AI. Connect on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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Topics: HR, Artificial Intelligence, Automation

Chris McKibbin

Written by Chris McKibbin