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How automation can change the average workplace

(Image credit: Image Credit: MNBB Studio / Shutterstock)

What’s the big deal with automation?

For the last century, “automation” has been a word that’s caused economists and workers around the world to cringe. Indeed, the automation of jobs has raised some concerns about job loss, but this is a very one-dimensional view of automation. The automation of knowledge work is the next major frontier in technology for businesses. It’s an exciting time for technologists and workers alike, who now have the opportunity to update and adapt their skills and make themselves more valuable to their company than ever before.

Do you think automation will completely eliminate jobs?

There is no denying that there are some low-skill jobs that primarily consist of repeatable tasks will be phased out over time; however, more often than not, automation either evolves job functions or aids work rather than completely eliminating it.

Consider designers. Before they had digital tools like Adobe at their disposal, print design was a very physical and meticulous process. Introducing these tools not only made the resulting work better, but made the job easier too. It expanded the skill set of many of those in the industry. Now, with these digital tools, a job as a designer has a higher value and the whole profession has exploded.

Data scientists are another great example. Thanks to increasingly sophisticated technology, compared to a decade ago, you can get data insights for a fraction of a cost at a fraction of a time. In spite of this, data analytics is a profession that's showing one of the highest growth rates - data scientists hold the top spot on Glassdoor’s 50 Best Jobs in America.

Why do you think there is so much confusion around AI and automation?

Much of this has to do with a general fear of the unknown and resistance to change - both of which are human nature. Futurists tend to take a positive approach when talking automation, exploring the opportunities automation presents like better work/life balance, increased productivity, and even job creation. Conversely, economists’ conversations about automation tend to focus on lost jobs and other potential negative impacts on communities.

The problem with these arguments is that they often take place between thought leaders on either end of the spectrum, and don’t include the voices of workers on the front line. Change is almost always more nuanced than the champions or opposition let on. A more pragmatic approach to AI and automation - and the impact it may have on workers, industries, and the economy - needs to be taken. We must acknowledge and plan for the transformation and evolution of work that it will bring, while also being open to the opportunities it presents.

Should people be worried about automation?

I’m generally an optimistic futurist, so I can’t help but see the automation that makes my life easier every day. From the cloud-based tables our finance team uses to track our expenses and revenue in real-time, to the “click to call” buttons used by our sales force, there are time-saving automations in just about every common task we execute, and that’s not including Robotic Process Automation (RPA) technology that workers can “train” to do software tasks for them. But in our Digital Work survey, only 14 per cent of workers said they “strongly agree” that their company employs automation. Managers were more likely to see the light, with 25 per cent of them strongly agreeing.

This may mean that companies truly aren’t utilising automation to the extent they should be to stay competitive. It’s just as likely that, as the analogue age fades further into history, workers don’t recognise the extent to which automation is already occurring in their work, and wouldn’t identify tools like spreadsheets, customer relationship management (CRM), or content management systems (CMS) as automated versions of work that used to take ungodly amounts of mind-numbing manual effort.

How can companies capitalise on automation to work smarter and faster?

While AI captures media and boardroom attention and, of course, the imagination, an even bigger workhorse for productivity is automation. With the ongoing shift to the digital workplace well underway, every single organisation has reinvented or will reinvent some of its processes, leaving big opportunities to templatise and automate part of that work.

This reduces the burden on employees to find and push information manually. Opportunities like these are often-times simpler to conceptualise and execute than larger AI initiatives, and don’t require rare skills or technologies. If we look at the ROI of AI and automation initiatives in 2019, I predict that at least three quarters of it will not require sophisticated AI techniques and will rely on simpler automations, including templatization of SOPs, statistics around repeatable work, and heuristics.

Aren’t most companies already taking advantage of automation in the form of Collaborative Work Management?

Almost every enterprise in the world is already embracing a collaborative work management (CWM) tool in some capacity - especially those that have aggressive growth plans for the next 2-5 years. I expect that we will see more companies, large and small, begin to understand the very real benefits of CWMs and expand their deployments of CWM technology to more teams, as competitive pressure heats up.

The pressure to do more work, and at an ever-increasing pace, will not only require an advanced collaborative work management platform with a robust automation feature-set. It will force the adoption of lightweight project management methodologies beyond the Project Management Office, as well as introduction and rapid growth of company specific Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) specifically designed for the Digital Workplace.

In your experience, which department is normally responsible for adopting automation first?

In my experience, IT, Professional Services, and Marketing tend to lead CWM adoption. Cross-departmental adoption of work management tools has traditionally been driven by Project and Program Management offices. In 2019, IT and Operations will become the major cross-functional champions and by 2022, 70 per cent of organisations leveraging CWM systems will report that their teams are significantly better performing, according to Gartner.

So automation can help teams work smarter, rather than replace them?

Absolutely. Automation increases the value of your human workforce by giving them more time to think strategically and creatively, and helping them restore balance in their lives, which can reduce stress and prevent burnout.

Andrew Filev, founder and CEO, Wrike
Image Credit: MNBB Studio / Shutterstock