In November 2017, McKinsey published a report estimating that as many as 700 million workers across 46 countries could lose their jobs over the next decade as a result of workforce automation. That’s a sizable number out of a worldwide population of 7.8 billion.
However, what this statistic doesn’t show is the upside of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotic process automation (RPA) to improve the efficiency of workers just as personal computers did when they were first commercially introduced following World War Two.
The difference between then and now is the pace of technological innovation and the mass adoption of technology in workforces. Today, business leaders also have a cultural appreciation that new technologies are a positive force for change, as a means of gaining a competitive advantage over competitors.
This isn’t to say that reports from McKinsey and other thought leaders shouldn’t be considered by business leaders when planning the future make-up of their workforces and the types of skills and capabilities they will require for success.
It is interesting to note that despite the scaremongering of massive job losses from technology, there were only two sessions at the World Economic Forum, in January 2018, discussing automation. Should there have been more? A quick look at tools such as https://willrobotstakemyjob.com/ would suggest some of the apocalyptic claims about automation may be overstated, but a lot of uncertainty still remains.
Personally, I would like to see more in-depth research on the impact of automation so business and political leaders have the necessary facts to debate, plan and work together to safeguard the employment and prosperity of people and their employers. This can only come from having more data, and more coordination globally.
A global response
To this end, I believe an international group should be established, run by a non-partisan organization, such as the United Nations. This group would be responsible for coordinating a global response to automation, working with national governments, non-governmental organizations and private sector organizations to collect, analyze and share data so policy-makers, in partnership with industry leaders, have the necessary insights to navigate the social and economic changes that will occur within the next three to five years.
Some governments, such as the US, France and the United Kingdom, are concerned about the future of work and have commissioned reports. The authors recommend that governments do more to educate and train people for tomorrow’s jobs while simultaneously helping existing workers transition from jobs impacted by automation.
This is particularly important but more action must be taken to ensure a consistent intentional approach is taken so everyone benefits from automation. We’re already seeing signs of disparity that require attention.
Naveen Rao, Intel’s Vice President and General Manager for Artificial Intelligence, believes that Europe is better equipped to cope with the seismic shift automation will unleash upon the global workforce than the United States. He also believes automation is taking place at a rate “faster than a lot of people thought.”
A local response
What should business leaders do to plan for changes in the workforce?
Empower your HR colleagues with people analytics so they are able to understand their workforces. They, in turn, will provide you with the insights to help you design your future human capital strategy in light of current and planned levels of workforce automation – information that your HR team should also collect by working with colleagues such as when IT deploys RPA (Robotic Process Automation) applications designed to automate manual tasks that free-up employees to focus on value-added activities.
In addition to calculating the business value of your robotic process automation software (somewhere in your organization RPA software has been implemented!), it would be extremely insightful to gather information by asking the following questions:
- Where in your organization is RPA software currently implemented?
- Which manual tasks were eliminated by implementing RPA software?
- How many employee hours were saved by using RPA software?
- If a job was eliminated as a result of implementing RPA software, was your employee moved to another role within your company? If not, was your employee let go?
- Which employee tasks could be eliminated by implementing RPA software?
- When is the right time to implement RPA software, and will you provide (re)training to affected employees?
Answers to these and other questions will enable you to assess where automation is and will impact your business operations. The insight would not only help you to accurately identify where you will need to invest in developing and hiring talent in the future, it would enable policy-makers to determine how and when to respond to further changes in local, national and regional economies brought on by automation such as unemployment.
So, what’s the main takeaway? Start to take a closer look at automation in your company. This means getting closer to colleagues responsible for developing a technology implementation roadmap that includes artificial intelligence and robotic process automation software.
Last but not least, embrace change including the latest technologies to improve the way your colleagues work but first look at the wider ramifications of your choices.