Four ways we can be preparing for automation in the workplace

It’s a subject sometimes tinged with fear and uncertainty, but nonetheless a hot topic of discussion in all industries at the moment…that being the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace and its implications on existing workforce.

Though we recognise automated procedures have been around for years, e.g. automated email marketing services or robotics used in car manufacturing lines, these past two years have birthed innovations that have taken many by surprise. They highlight the speed at which AI technology seems to be advancing and challenge existing notions of what can be achieved. These innovations include IBM’s Watson partnering with cancer care centers to suggest personalised cancer treatment, Google’s investment into driverless cars, Japan’s Henn-na Hotel which is staffed by 186 robots (some acting as multilingual receptionists and porters), and Intel’s Simbe Robotics Tally which roams supermarket aisles along with customers, noting which shelves need restocking and analysing where stock is best placed.

There have been alarming forecasts about the future of human jobs, e.g. Boston Consulting Group predicted a quarter of jobs will be replaced by robots or smart software by 2025. In contrast, research carried out by McKinsey & Company, analysing 2,000 work activities in 2015, suggested fewer than 5% of jobs can be entirely automated with current technology. However, while entire jobs might not be replaced, they still believe many of our work activities may be automated instead, with 60% of jobs having 30% or more of their activities automated. This means many job roles will have to be redefined.

Failing to embrace this new era of AI technology is certain to affect an organisation’s competitiveness. “Regardless of your industry, technology will be both a disrupting and enabling force in your workplace,” predicts Jeanne Meister, partner of Future Workplace HR advisory and research firm, when writing for Forbes.com.  Robots are unlikely to make all human jobs obsolete, but automation should be planned for and workforces made ready to embrace and work alongside these innovations.

Here are four ways to prepare your workplace for automation.

1. Keep an open mind

The World Economic Forum claims that for every job lost through automation, three new ones will be created, in particular jobs in the IT support industry. Tom Davenport and Julia Kirby, authors of Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines, believe that jobs will be augmented, not obliterated, by the arrival of automation. They give the example of a wealth advisor leaving the analysis of financial data to smart programs, while being able to concentrate on advising and building trust and relationship with clients, and providing personalised services. The advisor might choose to specialise in behavioural finance which requires social and emotional intelligence which is very hard to automate. As work capacity is freed up, employees have more time to focus on work of a higher value.

Automation entering the workplace is inevitable, so developing the right attitude to the expected changes is vital. Chetan Dube, founder and CEO of AI systems maker IPSoft, says, “Those who are willing to embrace change and work at updating their skillset to match the requirements of new roles will reap the rewards.” This also requires leadership to educate their workforce about how they can enjoy more strategic and creative job roles, and driving an expectancy of more productivity, higher quality, improved reliability and increased revenues which will benefit the whole company. And once new technology has been implemented, incentives that encourage workers and management, that helps them succeed in their revised roles, will aid them in embracing change

2. Nurture and train up a different type of employee

Siemens in Germany has started ‘future-proofing’ its trainees by teaching them soft skills such as teamwork and problem-solving which they are likely to need when working alongside automated technology. Other skills such as leadership, adaptability and an ability to learn and re-learn, will also be essential in work environments which will face continued job role redefinition as automated technology is implemented and continues to be innovated.

Business employers and HRs will value candidates who they believe can evolve as their business does. Accenture has helped the term ‘liquid workforce’ become popular; a workforce which has the competency to continuously train and which doesn’t just conquer changes, but turns them into advantages. As championed by Barack Obama’s administration, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education graduates will also be valuable to a future workforce that has a high dependency on technology.

Davenport and Kirby (referenced above) believe companies can either ‘step up’ to the changes ahead, by adding more strategic skills, or ‘step narrowly’ which involves hyper specialisation in a field. Either way, a business needs to be able to identify and provide the training needed for such steps to be taken.

3. Stay updated and analyse carefully

It’s essential that businesses stay informed about the latest developments in AI technology and continually assess how such innovations can help augment current job roles and increase productivity and profit. This means keeping an eye on the speed and direction of automation and calculating investment opportunities.

The November 2015 report by McKinsey & Company, entitled Four fundamentals of workplace automation, adds:

“Making such determinations will require executives to build their understanding of the economics of automation, the trade-offs between augmenting versus replacing different types of activities with intelligent machines, and the implications for human skill development in their organizations. The degree to which executives embrace these priorities will influence not only the pace of change within their companies, but also to what extent those organizations sharpen or lose their competitive edge.”

A wise idea for small businesses is to identity processes that are continuously repeated and consider implementing automation for such tasks. This then allows employees to focus on more valuable and less mundane work activities.

There is already a wide choice of automated programs which can support business practice and free up employee time. They include software which updates clients’ profiles, registers new clients, auto-corresponds, schedules appointments, coordinates calendars, offers highlighted minutes from meetings and creates competitive landscapes for products or services.

4. Evaluate how to maximise a new partnership

A future workplace is likely to be based on a successful and efficient human-machine partnership. The best type of partnership is one where automation helps employees become more productive and effective in their jobs, and one where employees and automated technology work harmoniously together, compensating for each other’s weaknesses.

While automation takes over certain work activities, employees can focus more on creative and emotion-based tasks which are extremely difficult to automate. The McKinsey & Company November 2015 report found that just 4% of work activities required creativity, while 29% required sensing emotions. Businesses could benefit from an increase in attention to these activities.

But could robots be replacing these activities too, one day? McCann Erickson Japan attempted to see if it could replace a creative director with an artificial intelligence program, AI-CD ß. Able to analyse past creative work and suggest an abstract direction for an advert, employees found they were still left to do the remainder and majority of the creative work.

Humans are still highly valuable in the workplace of tomorrow. Human-machine collaboration will only make businesses more intelligent and elevate human performance to produce greater business value and success. The key will be optimising this partnership.

 

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