How Automation Will Change the Way We Work

Where will humans fit into the equation?

By By Aliah D. Wright February 1, 2016

While we may be far from a world where machines will replace all working humans, 45 percent of work activities could be automated using existing technology, according to recent McKinsey & Co. research.

Researchers point out that blue-collar jobs aren’t the only ones at risk of metamorphosis or extinction. And, of course, humans will still be part of the equation: Automation will help people work smarter and will give rise to new kinds of workers.

“Automation comes in funny ways and is often so blindingly obvious we don’t even notice it as we adapt,” notes Jeremy Carey-Dressler, an automation engineer and owner of Eternal Blue Software in Meridian, Idaho.

Consider ATMs, which have replaced bank tellers, or apps that provide airline boarding passes. Plus, today’s computer programs now perform data analysis and can generate entire newspaper articles in minutes. For example, IBM Watson works as a cognitive assistant, using “natural language processing and machine learning to reveal insights from large amounts of unstructured data,” according to IBM.

McKinsey researchers report that a significant percentage of the activities performed by even those in the highest-paid occupations—such as financial planners, physicians and senior executives—can be automated by adapting current technology. “For example, we estimate that activities consuming more than 20 percent of a CEO’s working time could be automated using current technologies. These include analyzing reports and data to inform operational decisions, preparing staff assignments and reviewing status reports,” the McKinsey report states.

What Changes To Expect

More companies are investing in artificial intelligence, or cognitive computing, according to KPMG. In fact, a 2013 McKinsey Global Institute study found that 100 million global knowledge workers could be affected by robotic process automation by 2025.

However, Sheri Feinzig, director of strategy for IBM’s Smarter Workforce Institute, says such systems should not be thought of as replacing humans but, rather, as enhancing the way we do our jobs.

“For example, advanced analytics tools can do a phenomenal job of ingesting and analyzing vast amounts of information and identifying relationships in the data,” she says. “The reality is, though, that not all of those relationships will be meaningful, actionable or causative in nature. By surfacing these observed relationships quickly and efficiently, the human decision-maker is then able to discern what makes sense, what is useful and what can be acted upon. You still need the human as part of the decision-making process.”

Cliff Justice, a principal at KPMG, says that “process automation can free up employees from rules-based tasks by computerizing stable, predictable activities. But to truly replace human employees, process automation and cognitive technologies such as IBM Watson must converge. This combination of advancements is creating cognitive automation—or smart robotics—that can potentially automate new classes of knowledge work.”

Costs of Efficiency

“Automating tasks from a business perspective makes things more efficient,” says Sybll Romley, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Technology and HR Management Special Expertise Panel who has spent years in the HR field. “But we have to make sure we’re not making things efficient at the expense of the customer experience.”

And, from an HR perspective, “if you’re doing it at the expense of your culture and business, there’s a risk in that, too,” she says.

Carey-Dressler adds that “Machines can eventually learn by experiencing something repeatedly, but the problem is machines don’t handle unexpected circumstances well.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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