If we are to believe the critically-acclaimed author Yuval Harari, 'Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm', meaning that we'll become economically useless in the coming decades.
The alleged harbinger and carrier of this vision? Artificial intelligence technology. Most people may panic at the thought of complete obsolescence of jobs. But is this really going to happen? And if so, does it have to be a negative thing, or will it instead improve the quality of our work and daily lives?
Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm—Yuval Harari
To answer these questions, we want to reflect on the potential challenges and opportunities for individuals, businesses and organizations brought about by automation, while avoiding painting the topic in a black and white sort of utopia or dystopia.
Naturally, like any new technology, automation has the potential to bring both benefits and drawbacks on many levels, such as the job tasks or organizational culture. If you want to leverage the opportunities and manage the challenges brought by automation, you should see automation by taking a holistic approach when exploring and eventually implementing the technology in your organization.
Intelligent automation – a brief recap on What, How, Why and Why Maybe Not?
At the Heerlen Innovation Center for Smart Services, our perspectives on automation are illustrated at the example of intelligent automation (IA). IA automates business processes through software robots and artificial intelligence-driven tools.
The types of processes can range from highly repetitive and rules-based tasks—or low-end robotics—to highly complex, dynamic and context-specific tasks that require self-learning—or high-end robotics. Ultimately, automation developers (Devs) together with business analysts (BAs) and subject matter experts (SMEs) create virtual workers–making the virtual workforce a reality.
The foundation for our automation projects is the process design—or definition—document, PDD in short. In the PDD, BAs compile details about the relevance, business process logic, technical requirements and estimated impact of the automation project. Opportunity and risk assessments and other preceding analyses feed into this document.
Among other things, the PDD indicates that the level of human effort (in full time equivalent, FTE) is expected to be replaced by the robot(s). We could say that the PDD is a type of training manual for our little robots on their way to becoming stable and mature and fulfilling their expected tasks.
Businesses’ interest in having such robots lies in the vast potential to bring plenty of improvements: intelligent automation is expected to increase quality, boost efficiency and productivity, save costs, and speed up implementation. We could go on listing more and more benefits of automation–but then we would simply repeat what others have done enough already.
We could also lose our red thread by listing the potential challenges brought by automation, but this would defeat the purpose of giving you new insights. To name a few, though: Automation can contribute to unemployment and obsolescence of jobs or entire sectors, as envisioned by Harari, and may come with challenges regarding applicability, accountability, and responsibility.
In our daily work, we observe something more: Intelligent automation can really change how individuals and organizations operate and interact. Also, IA has the potential to add value to the workforce. Please look out for our upcoming article series in which we will discuss these effects.
To be open and ready for the benefits and challenges brought by automation, you should take a holistic approach in which you:
- Acknowledge the importance of meaning and stimulation,
- Identify areas where the human really matters, and
- Embrace a culture of improvement.
#1. The importance of meaning and stimulation
Whatever people do in their profession, whether they enjoy it and how well they perform at it, varies greatly across different societies, age groups, and eras in history. While extrinsic factors such as recognition (promotion) and reward (salary) are well-known to organizational leaders, more nuanced factors such as purpose and meaning are becoming more important in European and American societies.
People find meaning not only by feeling impactful, but also by being intellectually stimulated and creative.
Employees who perceive their work as significant, tend to experience more meaningfulness, which makes them more likely to perform better at their jobs. Here, significance is understood as the degree of social impact and worth to your work by, for instance, serving others and contributing to the greater good. Significance can also come from increased exposure to or interaction with the beneficiaries (such as customers or clients) to your work.
People find meaning not only by feeling impactful, but also by being intellectually stimulated and creative. Facing demanding tasks, having agency and responsibility eventually contribute to a higher performance. In addition to performance, meaningfulness also improves employees’ engagement, commitment and overall well-being.
While analyzing and automating business processes, we are sometimes shocked by how mindless, repetitive, plain, and boring many processes are and can hardly imagine humans enjoying or being stimulated by these tasks. Creating the possibility to replace mind-numbing tasks with more inspiring ones fuels a developer’s motivation, too.
Now, what if we say that intelligent automation has the potential to make your workforce’s lives better? Contrary to common belief that automation only kills jobs, it can make room for different and possibly more stimulating tasks. In line with economist Daron Acemoglu’s takes on technology, we can use IA as an enabling technology.
In our projects, we express the impact of automation through the FTE index, which indicates how much of an employee’s time will be freed up. It’s up to management how to use the freed-up time, and whether to cut down on employees or to reshape and re-skill the existing workforce.
When reorganizing staff, management can also consider how to use their people in the most effective way, but also in a way that is most satisfying and enriching to both parties. Such efforts could engage employees for input to enable them to be competent designers of their own work. In this way, process automation technology can make your work more human, by replacing the mindless robot-selves with engaged, inspired, and high-performing individuals.
#2. Where the human really matters
We still have a long way to go before the virtual workforce can take over all parts of the business. Moreover, some functions are going to be harder or less desirable to automate than others.
Before developers start building all sorts of robots and chatbots, the processes are discovered and assessed by a team of analysts with the input of subject matter experts (SMEs). They identify opportunities and risks of automating and discuss process optimization insights gained from business process mining.
Both humans and robots may (re-)focus on what they do best
Once the robots are up and running, further guidance from subject matter experts may be required to handle business exceptions. This occurs when data do not fulfill business or application criteria and, consequently, break defined process rules. Testing the deployed robots further involves SMEs who provide feedback.
Robot-testing meetings can feel like a social event where everyone is welcoming a new colleague whose success is invested in by the entire team and department. Social interaction and vivid knowledge exchange are essential to successfully designing and delivering such automation solutions.
The interpersonal and analytical nature of process analysis, handling exception, and testing illustrates that humans are needed even during and after implementing intelligent automation. We want to dive deeper into what exactly happens with the workforce and departments that work with virtual workers in future articles of this series.
We can make an educated guess where the human really matters and what types of human work will persist by looking at research and trends. A straightforward indicator is that both humans and robots may (re-)focus on what they do best.
For robots, that may include highly repetitive and predictable tasks. But, for humans, this may entail tasks that are complex, require flexibility and judgment, and are hard to predict. Especially where automation technology is being used, the human workforce tends to need hard and soft skills. Depending on the sector and function within a business, the relevant skills of the future include customer interaction, management, strategizing and planning, software engineering, and (data-driven) analysis.
In our highly personalized world, employees gain access to data and can leverage data and automation to create more customized services and products. This suggests that tech know-how and skills are likely to be more on demand in departments such as marketing and human resources.
The C-Suite is likely to have overseeing functions, while robots carry out back-office functions.
At the same time, non-technical skills, such as effective communication, storytelling, creativity, empathy and listening, are gaining immense importance as well. The C-Suite is likely to have overseeing functions, while robots carry out back-office functions.
Ultimately, you should see that optimal outcomes can be achieved when tasks, that are best done by humans, are complemented by tasks that are best done by robots. Thereby, return on investment and employee satisfaction can be maximized.
#3. Culture of improvement
We are in times where things change rapidly, and challenges are all around. Although we are praising ourselves for ever-increasing connectivity and speed of services, we have in fact seen a decline in productivity since the latest technological wave (from the birth of the iPhone onward).
Next to this, digital technologies have begun to interfere not only with jobs but also with entire industries. Disruption is a major buzz word here, and the industries expected to be most affected are media, telecom, consumer financial services, retail, and technology.
To manage those challenges, some businesses resort to applied machine intelligence and process automation solutions. However, these technologies also bring their own set of challenges which requires multiple departments and, broadly speaking, business and technology to work closely together. A mindset that should underlie the entire automation venture is one of continuous improvement.
In terms of human resources and internal communications, a cultural change should be encouraged aimed at enabling and training people on how to manage robots and to understand how automation can benefit them.
Further, business leaders should commit to protect and elevate its people rather than the jobs, as the latter may be automated. At the core of this new culture is agility, flexibility, and liquidity of employees and of organizational structures. As jobs are being transformed, professionals may have to reinvent themselves or craft new jobs.
Generally, job crafting behaviors tend to benefit both employees and organizations.
Job crafting can take various forms, such as taking up a leadership role, picking up a project that allows one to work collaboratively, mentoring, and training colleagues, or being in more direct contact with customers. Generally, job crafting behaviors tend to benefit both employees and organizations.
In our intelligent automation projects, we often see such a proactive and open culture among SMEs, as many get excited and embrace the robots’ potential for bringing improvements to their department and work – an indication for us that a culture of improvement is in the making.
So, what now?
With in-depth experience in digital and organizational management, we can help you with finding the best fit of automation and change management for your organization through our holistic approach to IA. With this approach, you can have a better look at the whole picture of new technologies and harness new, social and meaningful ways of working.
As automation technology is advancing, we are all on the path of learning. If you want to know more about managing changes and shaping new cultures and attitudes, join us on our article series for more interdisciplinary and reflective takes on the future of automation and the workforce.