Automation – a threat to the workforce or a pathway to new opportunities?

Have you ever come across an app called Waze? It’s designed to help drivers find the clearest route to their destination by pooling real-time information on traffic from other drivers. For a long time, I resisted the app. My reasoning: day to day, I know where traffic gets snarled up around my home and I know the best routes to avoid it.

Eventually, I gave in to curiosity. And guess what? The app does help me make faster journeys. It even tells me exactly what time I’ll reach my destination. I’m a fan.

The technology take-over

The same thing is happening all over society. As unfamiliar technologies prove they can make things faster, easier, cheaper – or just more fun – resistance is waning. Using technology is becoming as natural as breathing.

This trend is reflected in the corporate world, where automation and artificial intelligence are the technologies of the moment. Here, growing understanding of their potential, combined with a melting away of resistance to their application, means all bets are off.

As a result, organisations are starting to explore the opportunities to use automation and AI in every area of their business. In fact, it’s fast becoming a case not of ‘what can we do?’ but of ‘what can’t we?’

Dazzling riches

The temptation to automate wherever possible is strong. One US business magazine, for example, calculated that a Fortune 500 company applying AI and automation in a department of 500 employees could save $4.7 million a year.

But what are the wider implications of automating without restraint? Are we in danger of being dazzled by technology’s extraordinary power to make so many things faster, easier and cheaper?

From a societal point of view, the dangers ahead are easy to see. Many argue that more work for machines means less work for people. But what about the dangers for employers? When organisations apply automation indiscriminately can they still create the type of motivated, energised teams that talented people want to be part of?

Diversity, but not as we know it

As organisations start to weigh up the opportunities from automation, this is a good time for HR leaders to raise important questions about the nature of the future workforce. These questions might include:

  • How can our organisation blend human talent and automated labour to become more competitive?
  • What will new roles look like in our blended workforce and how will we find or develop the right people to fill them?
  • How can we prepare our existing employees to help us seize the opportunities from automation rather than resist it?
  • Do we have people who really understand the new possibilities that automation and AI offer?
  • Do we have the right leaders to take us forward in this fast-paced, constantly changing world?

The cleverest organisations will use automation to create opportunities for people to apply their uniquely human skills in new ways. Businesses that can work out how to do this will be the big winners in the competition for the best talent. And that’s something that will never go away.

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