Thinking outside the bot: Automation and the future of employment

Why IT leaders need a voice in how employees adapt to technology-driven automation.

Video: When it comes to automation filling jobs, is the age of AI different? TechRepublic caught up with an AI expert to talk about the history of automation and employment, and the two schools of thought on whether the 'second machine age' is different.

It's always intriguing to consider what we would tell our younger selves if we could travel back in time, and offer decades of experience and directional guidance that might change our trajectory in life. After providing some investment advice and a much-needed dating and personal grooming tip or two, I'd probably encourage my college-age self to pay a bit more attention to my studies outside technology and business.

As I look back over my career, beyond general concepts, I've used almost nothing from my dozens of programming and technical classes, yet I'm surprisingly confronting questions that draw on everything from philosophy to organizational behavior and to history and political science.

One of the great challenges that will face society in the coming years and will leverage these diverse disciplines is the future nature of work and employment.

SEE: Artificial intelligence: Trends, obstacles, and potential wins (Tech Pro Research)

The bots are coming

Pop culture and science fiction have long told us that robots and artificial intelligence (AI) will change the nature of our relationship with technology, in many cases with visions of gleaming stainless steel robots violently rising up against their creators. The reality will hopefully be far less violent, but still dramatically reshape humanity itself. IT leaders will be drivers of this change, as well as voices in how it is managed.

Societal and political changes and technology advancements have combined for a new generation of "bots" that are capable of replacing many tasks performed by what are generally called "knowledge workers." If you've ever walked the halls of a large bank, insurance company, outsourcing firm, or other processing heavy business, you've likely seen rooms filled with hundreds of people, diligently staring at dual screen workstations, and processing the millions of documents and transactions required to do everything from processing medical claims to paying the purchase orders that move our goods around the world. Even smaller companies dedicate a half-dozen employees to these tasks that have historically been just a bit too complex to fully automate.

Like industrial manufacturing before widespread automation, many of these jobs employ hundreds of thousands of people, pay reasonably well, and offer financial benefits as well as what philosophers call the dignity of work. However, much like the manufacturing floor, next-generation bots have the potential to automate many of these tasks and put formerly secure human workers out of a job.

SEE: Data center automation research report 2018: Despite growth in data, automation adoption remains slow (Tech Pro Research)

Where do IT leaders fit in?

It may be tempting for IT leaders to ignore the broader implications of technologies like bots. Traditionally, our role has been to set a technology strategy, perform a cost/benefit analysis of various systems, and implement it on time and on budget, rarely considering the human impacts of technologies beyond how to train affected workers and potentially rework the organization to get maximum benefit from the system or process.

With technologies like bots and digital assistants that have the potential to impact large groups of workers, it's important that we start thinking outside our traditional roles as pure technologists, and help our peers and executive leadership understand the human impacts of these technologies.

Outsourcing 2.0

Effectively, bots allow for a new generation of outsourcing, in this case to machines rather than humans across the country or over the oceans. It's rare to meet an IT leader, executive, or worker who was completely satisfied with how the first generation of outsourcing was executed, with concerns around effectiveness, productivity, and fewer cost savings, concerns that are ultimately manifesting themselves in many companies returning outsourced processes to their four walls.

Similarly, the cost-saving temptations of replacing a human with software that never complains, works around the clock, and always follows the rules you set may blind leaders to potential pitfalls ranging from applying great speed to fundamentally broken processes, to displacing millions of workers who have few employment options. While it's easy to admonish the displaced drill press operator to get some training and become a knowledge worker, where do you send the displaced knowledge worker?

SEE: Research: Automation and the future of IT jobs (Tech Pro Research)

Leadership is not above your pay grade

It's easy to quip that all these concerns about employee and societal impacts are "above your pay grade" as a lowly technology leader, and assume someone in HR or executive leadership can deal with all that "people stuff." However, you will be regarded as a voice of reason regarding what's actually possible with these technologies, providing an opportunity to weigh in on the pros and cons of how bots will impact the organization, and potentially its relationship with large swaths of its workers.

Consider starting or deepening a relationship with a key HR executive to discuss these intersections of people and technology. Take some time to learn from the past waves of technology-driven employment shifts that impacted manufacturing, and identify companies that made the transition well. As you interact with peers in other industries and outside vendors, speak with those who are further along with automation of back-office jobs. What lessons have they learned? How have they managed the transition?

SEE: Straight up: How the Kentucky bourbon industry is going high tech (TechRepublic cover story)

To place yourself in a leadership position on automation, consider publishing a short informational presentation or mini-whitepaper, sharing with your peers what's possible with current automation technologies, what's likely in the next few years, and what's marketing hype. Taking the lead in automation-related discussions will prevent you from finding yourself in the awkward position of being asked to accomplish the impossible since some vendor or external party convinced the executive team that these technologies can do more than it's currently capable of doing.

Ultimately, as a technologist, it's table stakes that you're able to discuss how these technologies work and are adopted. As a leader, it's critical that you educate your peers about the impacts beyond the bits and bytes.

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Image: Andrey Popov, Getty Images/iStockphoto