You’re not going to lose your job to automation

Intelligent automation is not about entirely replacing the human element, but about elevating the role people play in operations and putting businesses on the fast track to success

There is a growing concern in some industries that automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will take jobs away from the average citizen. The Committee for Economic Development of Australia predicted in 2016 that as many as five million Australian jobs will likely be automated by 2030.

It’s accepted that new machines and technologies will help companies cut costs, improve efficiencies, and increase sophistication in building and providing products. But for many, this exponential growth disrupting jobs — and therefore the economy at large — presents a worrisome possibility. How organisations adapt to this technological change will determine future economic prosperity, while keeping innovation agendas on course.

To be sure, intelligent automation is not about entirely replacing the human element, but about elevating the role people play in operations and putting businesses on the fast track to success. There are four key considerations that should be explored in order to determine what will really happen to jobs in your industry.

Manual vs. Knowledge Labour

Manual labour and knowledge-based labour are not interchangeable, and therefore their ability to be substituted with machines is different too.

Knowledge work is incredibly different from manual labour. When bots are applied to the knowledge process, the underlying knowledge assets (that is, knowledge possessed by a person and not by a machine) become more valuable. Empowered by bots, knowledge can be used in more interesting and productive ways. This additional value means that the amount of work potential and output of humans and robots significantly increases, and avoids pure substitution of robots for workers.

Automation is likely to change the nature of both manual and knowledge work, elevating the value that each worker brings to their role, as more of their time can be spent on thinking, not just doing. 

Taking tasks away, not jobs

Like the divide between manual and knowledge labour, there is also a difference between jobs and tasks, and the opposing disruptions they will face due to automation. Jobs and tasks are not the same thing, and should not be considered synonyms when discussing the future of automation.

It is more truthful to say that jobs are made up of many tasks, differently-sized, variously complex, and yet still crucial to the completion of one’s job. It is therefore inaccurate to say that jobs will be automated rather than tasks.

Many studies tend to approach jobs in a binary sense, meaning that they either will be become automated or they won’t. However, this is too simplistic a rationale, as any knowledge job is made up of a collection of tasks. Whilst some of these tasks will be absorbed by new technologies, new tasks will be created as technology advances, including the management of and implementation of insights garnered from that technology.

To make the generalisation that entire jobs will become obsolete is untrue, and research by Forrester highlights that ‘robotic process automation’ will only eliminate portions of jobs;  most likely the aspects or tasks in a job that people find time-consuming and tedious.

Technology: Job Destroyer or Creator?

Uncertainty can be difficult to deal with, but previous times of technological change were not characterised simply by job loss. Instead, every technological shift has also led to job creation. The devices that we take for granted—cars, TVs, computers, kitchen appliances and even our clothes—are all direct results of automation.

Furthermore, visible trends have become apparent from previous industrial revolutions particularly around the various benefits to society. Automation creates an abundance of products and services that are vastly more affordable and of a higher quality than they were before. In this way, technology and automation become enablers of economic stimulation.

The Healing Power of Time

In looking to the past, we must also attempt to understand what’s coming in the future. In this process, we often forget to consider a realistic timeframe for action and reaction. While the prediction for the future is that automation will effect up to five million Australian jobs, the biggest question is: how soon, and how accurate is this prediction?

A common argument in rebuttal of the benefits of automation centres on workers with purely manual skills. What good is the opportunity to take on more knowledge-based work for someone with 35 years on the production line in a car manufacturing plant, and few transferable skills?

While this is indeed a confronting thought, it’s also worth remembering that a wide infiltration of AI won’t happen overnight. Vision, strategy, technological investment and an implementation roll-out, all need to happen before that worker is out of a job—and these roles in themselves are creating employment opportunities. Meanwhile, businesses should be training up their workforce for the change to come.

Future-proofing your business for the change is key: it is essential that organisations set realistic timeframes by taking a task-based view of work and recognising the value of human input.

Change management will also be a huge part of this journey as organisations educate, train, and keep communication channels open during the rise of automation. If the workers performing the manual tasks are let go, businesses will find themselves with a huge labour shortage.

The skills-gap that many organisations will face cannot be filled by external recruitment alone, and a long-term employee with an in-depth knowledge of processes, output, and team culture would be worth re-training.

Automation is approaching at a fast clip, and whilst rudimentary jobs centred on rote, repetitive tasks may indeed be in less demand over the next decade, a vast majority of jobs will still be needed, although core job skillsets and job descriptions will change as a result of the digital era. Automation will become a powerful enabler, working in tandem with people to drive new levels of efficiency, provide better, cheaper products, and tackle new business challenges.

The human touch will continue to remain essential to orchestrating and managing different business processes, tasks, and jobs. Building the workforce of tomorrow will involve doubling down on uniquely human analytical, strategy and leadership skills that require constructive thinking and cannot be replaced with robot technology.

The emphasis will be on acquiring new skills that catalyse thinking, problem-solving, and delivering in smarter, more creative and productive ways. Being more digital will invariably be about being more human.

Benjamin Pring is co-director of Cognizant’s Centre for the Future of Work, co-author of ‘What to Do When Machines Do Everything: How to Get Ahead in a World of AI, Algorithms, Bots, and Big Data’