What We Often Get Wrong About Automation

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When leaders describe how advances in automation will affect job prospects for humans, predictions typically fall into one of two camps. Optimists say that machines will free human workers to do higher-value, more creative work. Pessimists predict massive unemployment, or, if they have a flair for the dramatic, a doomsday scenario in which humans’ only job is to serve our robot overlords.

What almost everyone gets wrong is focusing exclusively on the idea of automation “replacing” humans. Simply asking which humans will be replaced fails to account for how work and automation will evolve. Our new book, Reinventing Jobs: A 4-Step Approach for Applying Automation to Work, argues that while automation can sometimes substitute for human work, it also more importantly has the potential to create new, more valuable, and more fulfilling roles for humans.

Thinking Through How Automation Will Affect Your Workforce

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Today, executives have to cut through a lot of hype around automation. Leaders need a clear-eyed way to think about how these technologies will specifically affect their organizations. The right question isn’t which jobs are going to be replaced, but rather, what work will be redefined, and how? Based on our work with a number of organizations grappling with these issues, we’ve found that the following four-step approach can help. 1. Start with the work, not the “job” or the technology. Much work will continue to exist as traditional “jobs” in organizations, but automation makes traditional jobs more fluid and an increasing amount of work will occur outside the traditional boundaries of a “job.” Optimally integrating humans and automation requires greater ability to deconstruct work into discrete elements — that is, seeing the tasks of a job as independent and fungible components. Deconstructing and then reconfiguring the components within jobs reveals human-automation combinations that
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Automation Will Make Us Rethink What a “Job” Really Is

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As businesses enter the unchartered waters of machine intelligence – where machines learn by experience and improve their performance over time – researchers are trying to predict its impact on jobs and work. Optimists suggest that by taking over cognitive but labor-intensive chores the intelligent machines will free human workers to do more “creative” tasks, and that by working side by side with us they will boost our imagination to achieve more. Experience with Robotic Process Automation (RPA) seems to confirm this prediction. Pessimists predict huge levels of unemployment, as nearly half of existing jobs appear prone to automation and, therefore, extinction. More nuanced analysis points to a less dystopian future where a great number of activities within jobs will be undertaken by intelligent systems rather than humans. This view, in effect, calls for a re-examination of what a “job” actually is: how it is structured, and how it should
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As Work Changes, Leadership Development Has to Keep Up

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As work itself is changing, some of the basic tenets of leadership development are being challenged. The very idea of leading people in jobs is changing with the democratization of work and the continued advance of digital technology. These twin forces are moving work beyond the traditional structure of activities that are organized into stable jobs within a siloed organization. Work is being disaggregated into tasks that can be dispersed inside and outside of the organization — the “uberization” of work. And as AI and robotics increasingly supplement and replace the work of humans, the expectations of leaders — truly understanding the work, how it can be executed now and in the future, and the cost, capability and risk implications of current and future work options — are increasing exponentially. Consider how IBM has tackled new ways of work distribution as described in Lead The Work: Navigating a World Beyond
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