The world of business is awash with discussion of automation and AI. Some say it will cost jobs. Others say it will create jobs. Everyone agrees that automation is coming. Some recognise it is already here. A few are already doing it.
I’m not an HR Director or a lawyer. I’m an automation specialist. So let me talk you through automation from my perspective and you can draw your own conclusions as to the likely impact on people in your organisation.
Let’s start with a stat I heard in a recent speech delivered by Universities Scotland chair Professor Andrea Nolan OBE: 45% of jobs in the UK will be automated by 2025.
A huge claim.
Even with the massive rate of development in technology, technology change isn’t actually that easy. It requires sufficient numbers of skilled people to deliver the change and for the business to agree to spending the cash.
There is much that can be done but the cost of doing all that’s possible by 2025 would be astronomical.
Could all businesses shed 45% of their staff in the next 7 years? Are there enough legal and specialist HR professionals to even handle that level of activity.
My guess is not.
When we spend time with businesses, we usually see that 20-30% of around 80% of roles would be practical to automate. That’s not a scientifically researched number, just our experience. Within that, there are processes which are not financially viable for every business to automate e.g. a small third sector organisation we met with recently have a process to download their bank transactions and upload it into their accounting system daily (open banking not yet available with their existing banking partner). This would be straightforward to automate but the saving is only 5 minutes per day for one person so is there a justification?
As part of a wider programme perhaps but not on its own. Even in very large organisations, it’s surprising to see just how many very small repetitive processes exist, many taking minutes out of a day or week for just one or two people.
Yet there are dozens of these within the same organisation and often the same people are responsible for multiple. This increases the cost of automating part of the role of one individual. Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, just that it undermines the likelihood of all possible processes being automated within a given timeframe.
So what does the future of office based work look like?
I don’t know many business leaders who want to run smaller businesses. Efficiency and cost cutting are important – particular as turnaround measures – but they are rarely goals in themselves. Growth is the general objective.
This is absolutely critical to the future of work and the role that automation will play. Although automation can assist in reducing cost, particularly in very large corporates, few companies will use this as a driver. Most will use automation for growth.
“How?” I hear you ask. In short, by increasing productivity and improving customer experience.
By removing the repetitive menial and manual tasks that most people hate and are not good at, those people can concentrate on doing the things where they can add real value: problem solving, innovation, strategic decision making, relationship building, sales, creative tasks, engagement, the list goes on. Meanwhile, the old menial tasks are still being completed concurrently.
By automating tasks, people can spend more time assisting customers and manual errors are removed. Automation can also work pro-actively to identify, diagnose and resolve problems at a scale where it would be simply impractical for people to do it.
Over the last 6 months, Sky have done some great work to pro-actively identify broadband faults so action can be taken sooner. I have no doubt that Sky would be the first to say there is more they want to do but they’re making progress and are a good example of investing in automation to deliver a better customer experience.
A recent Everest report backs this up. They identified that of the businesses surveyed in their research, none of those who were automating at scale had reduced headcount. Whilst that paints a very clear picture, it’s important to note that the sample was very small and comprised of early adopters who may not be representative of the future norm.
You’ll no doubt see me as biased when I say it’s not quite panic stations territory for the workforce. However, I think everyone can agree that there is a conversation to be had. I believe businesses who are considering automation should be open about it and what they’re trying to achieve. If it’s about growth, say it. If it’s about cutting costs, be up front as to why that is necessary and what the potential impacts are on staff.
Whatever the approach, I would urge HR professionals to pro-actively engage early in the automation process and lead conversations with the workforce. After all, they may be unnecessarily worrying already.
Alex Croucher is Director of Intelligent Automation at www.vkyautomation.com