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People must be at the heart of automation

There has been a lot of talk in the media recently about large-scale automation and the threat of robots replacing humans. A new report by Deloitte claims that eleven million jobs in the UK are at “high risk” of being automated by 2036, while distinguished technology expert Vivek Wadhwa has also warned that robots and artificial intelligence will be capable of carrying out the majority of human jobs within 20 years.

It is true that there are huge advances being made in technology such as artificial intelligence, and we are already seeing the effects of automation in sectors like retail and manufacturing. However, there is a tendency to scaremonger about the impact of automation on the workforce, and fears of robots ‘taking over’ and causing mass unemployment are unfounded. While automation does displace some jobs, it also creates lots of new jobs – after all, who is going to develop and manage all this technology?

This is not to say that automation does not present challenges to our economy, or society as a whole. If much of the lower-skilled, entry-level tasks that are typically carried out by trainee and junior staff are automated, how will people develop the skills needed to progress in their professional career? For example, in the legal profession there are concerns that most paralegal work could be automated within 20 years. Therefore, large-scale automation could require a drastic reform in how we educate and train the workforce.

There is also a danger that with greater automation, humans will become too dependent on machines to fulfil basic tasks for them. We are already seeing evidence of this in day-to-day life – many of us have become dependent on Sat Navs when travelling to unfamiliar destinations, for example. So while automation could see greater demand for higher-level management skills, at the same time it could reduce our cognitive skills and ability to make decisions.

I believe the way forward is a human-centric approach to automation. We must not forget that people possess unique characteristics that robots never will: empathy, creativity, humour, relationship-building, leadership and so on. The key to successfully adopting automation will therefore be to harness these human skills while allowing technology to perform the tasks that machines are better at.

There also needs to be clearly defined responsibility and accountability for automated processes. Humans must still be ultimately accountable for performance and quality, and take action when things go wrong, but for them to be able to do this they need to be involved and engaged in the process. Humans learn best by doing – as an old Chinese proverb says, “tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand”.

In the workplace, the IT department has, strangely, been one of the slowest to embrace automation due to previous failures. They face the challenge of balancing the pressure to deliver more advanced solutions that meet users’ growing demands while reducing operational costs and improving efficiency. Automation is the way to achieve this, but IT workers must remain at the heart of service delivery to understand what is happening on their network and the technology being used. In the event of a security incident, for example, this knowledge can help to minimise the damage caused. It is the IT department that often drives automation in other areas of the business, and by working with managers in other departments they can ensure success.

In summary, while automation technology is undoubtedly becoming more sophisticated and capable of fulfilling more and more human tasks, fears about robots completely replacing humans are overblown. Humans are essential to the success of any new technology, and by taking a human-centric approach to automation organisations can take advantage of the benefits that automation offers while developing the cognitive, personal and management skills that they will require from employees.

Simon Ratcliffe, Consultant, Advanced 365

Image Credit: Sarah Holmlund / Shutterstock

Simon Ratcliffe
Simon is a Principal Consultant at Ensono, responsible for helping clients on their digital transformation journey. He holds degrees from the University of Cambridge and is a trained psychologist and former finance director.