Redefining Leadership in the Age of Automation

These are the good—and bad—outcomes of automation

Erin Binney By Erin Binney June 18, 2019
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Leadership has always been tough, and the age of automation has made it even harder. In addition to making sure that their companies are nimble enough to remain sustainable, leaders today also need to consider what their moral obligations are to the communities they serve.

Speakers at the EmTech Next 2019 conference, which focuses on the future of work, shared their thoughts on the skills today's leaders need and the moral responsibilities those leaders have to entities beyond the business.

Meera Sampath, associate vice chancellor for research at the State University of New York, encouraged business leaders to engage in socially responsible automation. Most companies, she said, see automation simply as a cost-cutting method and do not consider the broader effects on the local community. Socially responsible automation offers a shared value proposition, which allows both the business and society to see benefits.

There are four levels of automation, Sampath said, and most companies operate at the lowest level—that is, they view automation narrowly as a way to cut costs, be profitable and please shareholders. At the highest level of automation—socially responsible automation—companies achieve business goals by creating new revenue streams and good jobs, which creates opportunities for employment and prosperity in the larger society.

Susan Winterberg, a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfar Center for Science and International Affairs, made a case for business leaders to do a better job of supporting workers who are displaced by automation.

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Typically in the U.S., she said, layoff decisions are made secretly behind closed doors; the news comes as a shock; affected workers are escorted to the door by security as though they are criminals; and, although some companies provide severance pay, employers are not legally obligated to continue compensation. All of this leaves the individuals feeling embarrassed, ashamed and confused.

The sudden loss of an individual's livelihood can negatively affect his or her physical and mental health, Winterberg noted. Furthermore, because there is a stigma associated with being unemployed, finding a new job can be difficult. And often, the person's next job results in lower earnings.

Communities can also suffer, particularly if layoffs happen on a large scale. People who lack marketable skills must leave the area, which leads to higher housing vacancies, declining property values and increases in crime. As a result, doing business in the community may become untenable.

So when businesses cut employees loose and leave them to figure things out on their own, those businesses may ultimately be hurting themselves.

Winterberg said businesses that treat displaced workers with respect tend to follow these guiding principles:

They have clear values. "These companies know what's important to them," she said. That may be their brand, their status as an employer of choice, the fact that their customers love them, their reputation for safety or quality, or something else.

They put people at the center. Nokia, for example, held a job fair and invited competitors to connect with workers who were slated to be laid off. Smaller companies can announce in advance if a particular division will be eliminated and ask the workforce to put out feelers and help connect soon-to-be-displaced workers with new jobs; this costs nothing, Winterberg noted.

They embrace radical transparency. Some companies have a process in which employees help them decide, for example, whether to close a factory or not. "They co-plan that together," Winterberg said.

They adopt a stewardship mindset. These companies see themselves as being bigger than building a product, she explained. They see themselves as contributors to the community.

The bottom line: How businesses implement automation matters to the business, the workers and society, and it's possible to do it in a way that benefits everyone. 


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