The robots are coming, and they are coming for our jobs.
This is the fear that has been stoked by headline after headline written about the imminent arrival of the robotic future. Given the pace of advancement in automation and AI, it is only natural for some to imagine a dystopian future rife with massive unemployment.
See "LEAP Panel: The Future of Work, According to Four Very Smart People" for expert insight on what work will look like in the future.
But is that really going to happen?
I don’t believe so. I believe this new era of intelligent machines and software will only increase the demand for, and focus on, the uniquely human talents of invention and innovation.
Key to that is leveraging automation to unlock human creativity and productivity. In other words, you want the robots on your team.
Here’s why, and how to make that happen.
Technological Automation is Not New
Let’s first take a step back and recognize that technological automation has been happening for thousands of years. First came the domestication of animals and the invention of the wheel.
Then the Industrial Revolution began in the eighteenth century. Hand-production methods finally gave way to machines powered by water and steam, creating the first factory systems.
More recently we have seen the rise of the digital revolution and all of its attendant wonders for modern life.
Over the centuries of rapid automation, we have seen an extraordinary rise in per-capita wealth and employment. Jobs are better, more satisfying, and higher paying for more people than ever before.
Replaces Redefines Jobs (Or the Myth of the ATM)
A case in point is the popular myth that automated teller machines (ATMs) eliminated human bank teller jobs. On the contrary, the chart below shows that human bank teller jobs increased while ATMs proliferated.
So what happened? It turns out that ATMs allowed banks to open more branches because they didn’t need to hire as many human bank tellers to staff each branch, which resulted in an overall increase in the number of human bank tellers hired.
Additionally, human bank tellers stopped performing many routine activities (the ATM jobs), and instead focused on higher-value tasks like selling the bank’s financial products. Hence the human bank teller job wasn’t replaced, just redefined.
This same redefinition of high-value vs. low-value activities is happening worldwide, and is due to automation. Economists call this shift “job polarization,” where routine-oriented jobs give way to non-routine jobs that require a high degree of cognitive skill and flexibility.
Rise of the Knowledge Worker
Job polarization has created huge demand for a particular class of worker called the knowledge worker. Knowledge workers are those whose main capital asset is the knowledge and thinking they bring to bear to their work.
Knowledge workers use mind power instead of muscle power. They use information to innovate and create. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates well over 60 million knowledge workers are employed in the United States. This is also the fastest growing group of workers.
I’m a knowledge worker, and chances are that you are one, too.
The Challenge of Digital Work Automation
We have established that the robots aren’t coming to create a jobless hell for us. In fact, robots present both a real challenge and a tremendous opportunity. I believe this challenge was framed quite accurately by the late, great Peter Drucker when he said:
“The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the twentieth century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing.
The most important contribution management needs to make in the twenty-first century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and knowledge workers.”
Work in the twenty-first century is centered on digital processes, therefore automating knowledge work equates to digital work automation.
Here are three steps that an executive leadership team can take to begin the journey toward unlocking the productivity of their knowledge workers with digital work automation:
- Document existing processes and workflows: Before you can modernize your work processes, you have to know how your teams work today, and why they work that way. Think of this as a cathartic exercise. You are sure to find areas with extraneous steps, as well as places where no process exists and things fall through the cracks. We live in an age when technology is marketed as the magic bullet for all things, but technology cannot completely mask bad process. The goal is to differentiate between productive process and excessive administrative overhead.
- Unify content and collaboration in a trusted system: We spend too much time and mental capacity trying to remember things or find things. Knowledge workers are forced to navigate across disparate silos, stringing together data to complete the picture. Bringing together core elements of work—content, collaboration, and tasks—into one place will save your team significant time by shifting administrative burden to the system. This frees up your folks to focus brain power on solving real market problems.
- Establish a pattern of automating minimal-value tasks: Any work that is of minimal value is a candidate for automation. You can start small with something as simple as email routing, setting up key rules based on sender or content. As you move up the chain to automate tasks of increasing value, you need to have solid processes and systems in place because the automation will be rooted in that foundation.
To Win the Future We Must Change How We Work
Economic historians acknowledge the onset of the Industrial Revolution as the most important event in human history since the domestication of plants and animals. However, I believe we are now at the beginning of the greatest ever tectonic shift in the status quo.
Meeting Drucker’s challenge of increasing the productivity of knowledge workers in the digital age is at the heart of this revolution, with technology as the key enabler.
In this revolution, the journey and the destination are one and the same: enabling humans to focus on what we do best—dream, create, and innovate.
Check out "New Workfront Survey: What Motivates UK Knowledge Workers" to see a SlideShare full of information on what makes knowledge workers tick.
About the Author
Steven is the Chief Product & Technology Officer at Workfront. He has many years of executive leadership, product development, and software engineering experience across various industries including enterprise software, healthcare IT, and games. Peanut butter with chocolate constitute Steven’s kryptonite.More Content by Steve ZoBell