By Vikalp Jain
Technology is changing the way organizations function. Rapid advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies are causing shifts that impact both employers and employees alike. The discussion on automation and its implications for the workforce is well documented. Yet, it remains uncertain how the process will play out, and what the future of work will be in the age of artificial intelligence. The following article offers insights into the reality of automation, its prospects, and perhaps more importantly, the skills and work environment that will prevail in its wake.
Automation is often perceived as a threat to the human workforce due to its potential to render workers obsolete and replace them. A closer look at the unfolding transition allows us to paint a different and contradictory picture. The reality of automation is hindered by organizational and managerial resistance to adopt new technologies. A report by Accenture concluded that 57% of the managers felt they lacked the skills to work with intelligent machines, and only 14% of top managers and 24% of mid-level managers believed they could rely on these systems to make key decisions.
Moreover, technologies are generally routine biased. While they are efficient at mundane tasks, they don’t deliver so well on the non-routine, spontaneous ones that require human discretion and ingenuity. It is difficult to see how they can ever replace humans entirely at work. They are chiefly seen as means to free employees from routine tasks, so that they can engage more productively in the non-routine, and learn other skills that contribute to the organisational productivity and efficiency. For example, when ATMs were introduced by banks, the clerks were utilized for banking purposes other than recording transactions.
Automation has its pros and cons. The view that automation will replace the human workers is not only detrimental to the confidence of the workforce, but also inaccurate. This discrepancy is evident in reports on the future of automation. While some scholars estimate that around 50% of American jobs are vulnerable to automation, a report by OECD suggests that only 5% of the jobs in its 21 nations are entirely automatable. The reason for these varying numbers is simple – automation is not absolute, and it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which jobs will be automated.
Creative jobs, non-routine manual labor, and non-routine cognitive (high skill) jobs will be less automated than middle-income, standardized and routine jobs. Similarly, some skills – those that cannot be automated, but will continue to be essential for organizations – will be more valued than others that can be. By trying to complement the existing workforce with automation, we can increase productivity, efficiency and innovation, while up-skilling our manpower.
It has become clear that automation has reduced the demand for certain skills. For instance, perceptual skills have reduced in demand because machines are far more adept at recognizing patterns and features from simple and complex data. Machines have also reduced the need for supervision in simple and mundane tasks, and increased the demand for interpersonal skills for managerial and collaborative purposes. On the other hand, the increasing reliance on machines for organizational purposes has resulted in increased demand for computer and machine skills.
Jobs that require these skills have increased steadily and are better paid. Other skills that have gained in prominence since the advent of artificial intelligence are more human centric. Human cognition for problem-solving and emotional sensibility for nuanced understanding of situations is arguably more valued today, for they are not easily invented and cannot be bought from the market.
Automation is essential for the future of economies. Without it, countries could face serious gaps in production, growth, and workforce. With it, they can cater to an increasing population, meet their demands, and keep economies growing, despite an aging population. Although automation threatens to replace some jobs, they promise to create new ones. Automation is not possible without professionals, who can create the technologies that make it possible.
The growing demand for automation technologies creates new industries that contribute to existing ones. Overall, technical skills will become more accessible due to the demands of these new industries. And overtime, the quality of workforce will improve to make even the flourishing of small-scale business possible at a large scale.
Advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies are changing the way modern organisations operate. They are increasingly being implemented across sectors, and are producing shifts in employment and work environment that deserve our attention. Contrary to popular belief, automation is not threatening. Rather, it is complementing. Organizations can increase productivity and reduce cost by planning well for the technological shift, maintaining a clear narrative for transparency, and protecting its people (employees) for stability.
For employees, the new work environment can be unsettling. However, machines provide opportunities for growth and progress. They automate the routine, and allow more time to engage in non-routine and novel undertakings. Automation frees workers to engage with their work differently, and to innovate. This requires adaptability, however, and a definite set of values that make them feel secure in an ever-changing technological work environment.
The writer is the president of edtech firm AEON Learning.