Advancements in technologies like automation and artificial intelligence are increasingly improving companies’ productivity and performance, but they are also sparking a fear that they will replace human jobs, which might make some leaders hesitant.
According to a June 2015 Harvard Business Review article, “Robots Seem to Be Improving Productivity, Not Costing Jobs,” researchers found that “the use of robots within manufacturing raised the annual growth of labor productivity and GDP by 0.36 and 0.37 percentage points, respectively, between 1993 and 2007,” representing 10 percent of total GDP growth and 16 percent of labor productivity growth. In more recent years, automation and artificial intelligence have vastly increased productivity in all industries, with many more advancements expected in the future.
Still, despite automation’s rise and evidence showing its role in improving productivity, some might be cautious to fully implement the technology due to a number of factors.
First, automation technology is so new that there often isn’t enough data to build out a fully automated system, according to Ulrik Christensen, executive chairman of Area9 Learning, a personalized and adaptive learning technology company based in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. He pointed to the fact that neural networks — or computer systems inspired by the human brain and nervous system — only recently became more efficient and accessible. For individual systems to automate, for instance, they must gather vast amounts of data for the neural network, which takes both time and expertise.
Second, in areas where the technology is capable of automating human jobs, some luddites might consider bypassing automation in favor of human workers for fear of the social toll it might bring. So far, however, most executives haven’t fallen into this category and have shown no hesitation to automate jobs where the technology is accessible, according to Tom Davenport, professor of information technology and management at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “I don’t see any bias that humans need to do most jobs,” Davenport said. In fact, not only are executives not hesitant to replace workers with automation technology; they want more of it, Davenport said. “They don’t really want to talk about it publicly much because it would sound really bad to the employees,” he said.
Indeed, public perception may hold some executives back when talking about investing more in automation and other emerging technologies that might threaten jobs. Doing so would not only influence employee sentiment inside their companies but could also influence the company’s consumer brand. For instance, if the perception is that employers are investing more in robots than their employees, it might influence customer buying decisions, according to David Greenfield, director of content and editor-in-chief for Automation World, a trade publication for professionals working in discrete, batch and process manufacturing industries based in Chicago.
Another factor pulling at executives is that too much investment in automation might eliminate the human element in certain vital organizational processes, Greenfield said. Feeling recognized for one’s work and being mentored both are measures of employee satisfaction that require a human touch. “There are some things internally that can certainly be automated, but especially within a company, one of the biggest knots on many corporations is the lack of feeling like you belong and have a part in a company. Automating too many processes certainly is not going to help that,” Greenfield said.
A final balancing act executives might have to manage when implementing automation technology is how it is communicated to employees internally. Employees’ fear of losing their jobs is one of the biggest barriers to automation in the workplace, even if certain forecasts overstate the threat. For example, when Greenfield interviews leaders of manufacturing companies for Automation World, he frequently hears about how workers fear that they will have to find other work as a result of increased investment in automation. However, most new implementations supplement, not replace, human work, and after that initial fear passes, workers get used to the technology and even grow to like it for the benefits of safer work environments and automation of mundane tasks, Greenfield said.
Employees may not always lose their jobs because there are still human tasks to do around robots and automation, including maintenance, repairs and verifying the machine’s output, Greenfield said. In some cases, automation and robotics creates new jobs, such as a “robot trainer,” which provides feedback for machines to become better at automation, according to Josh Bersin, principal and founder of research and advisory firm Bersin by Deloitte. Human thinking will still be of value in roles that require social skills, design and communication. “Every technical job is slowly upgraded to add more social and human skills,” Bersin said.
Nevertheless, it’s unpopular for companies to say they plan to replace human jobs with robots, so how should companies go about it? Said Babson College’s Davenport: “What I think works a lot better is if you say, ‘We’re committed to keeping as many people around as we can, and we’d like to move you to higher value-added activity.’” Added Davenport: “They need to say, ‘OK, it’s time to get our people ready, and HR, that’s your job to do that.’”
Education is Essential
Perhaps most important amid the delicate act of implementing and communicating use of automation and robotic technology in the workforce is retraining and educating people on the details of the transition.
Bersin said within those working on automation projects, about a fifth are eliminating humans from their jobs. Others are redesigning jobs and training existing people to use new tools. “Individuals who are unable or unwilling to learn new tools will be left behind,” Bersin said. Furthermore, organizations that neglect to reeducate their workforce will lose competitive advantage.
Training, therefore, is critical, and it’s the obligation of employers to lead the effort, according to Area9 Learning’s Christensen. He said business leaders should actively lobby policy makers on improving the education system to help account for the new needs of the workforce in the age of automation.
Those leading higher education need to step up as well, said Automation World’s Greenfield. “So much is happening so fast, and people are not adapting to it well at all,” he said. “And nothing is really changing in the education system to affect that.”
Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email email@example.com.