Why automation will not take away jobs

Let’s start with a question that is easier to answer, because it’s in retrospect. Has automation taken away jobs from people so far?

Published: 28, Mar 2018

The author is senior vice president, technology, Newgen Software, which is a pioneer in the Digital Transformation space. For over two decades organizations have relied on Newgen’s innovative technologies and solutions to drive smarter business decisions. Newgen through its proven Business Process Management, Enterprise Content Management, Customer Communications Management and Case Management platforms brings about the perfect amalgamation of information / content, technology and processes; the building blocks of Digital Transformation. Newgen’s commitment is towards enabling clients achieve greater agility when it comes to transforming processes, managing information, enhancing overall customer satisfaction and driving enterprise profitability. This philosophy and commitment forms the guiding fundamentals of the organization’ and the basis of its Mission and Vision. Headquartered in McLean, Virginia, Newgen Software Inc. was incorporated in 1997 with a view to grow business in the North America market. The company is credited with large, mission-critical deployments at the world’s leading banks, insurance firms, BPOs, healthcare organizations, government agencies, telecom companies, and shared service centers. Newgen Software Inc. is a wholly owned subsidiary of Newgen Software Technologies Ltd. – Leader in ECM, BPM, CCM and Case Management space. Newgen is certified /appraised for ISO 9001:2008, ISO 27001:2013, CMMi Development (v1.3) Level 3 and CMMi Services (v1.3) Level 3. The organization has a global footprint with over 1300 installations in more than 61 countries.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Here's an age-old paradox that comes up with every leap of technological advancement: Will automation take away jobs from people?

Let’s start with a question that is easier to answer, because it’s in retrospect. Has automation taken away jobs from people?

You would expect the answer to be a simple yes or no, based on data, but there’s the catch. It also depends on how we look at it.

For centuries, many, probably most of the technological innovations have been created with an intention to replace human labor. Starting with the ancient farming equipment, right up to assembly lines, computing machines, ATMs, and recent technologies; the intention has been the same. The population eligible for economic activities, or “work”, has increased manifold during this time. Does that mean jobs have reduced? Definitely not. On the contrary, employment rates have consistently increased in each one of these areas.

Let’s take assembly lines, for example. Assembly lines were designed to simply reduce the manual labor, but accomplished a lot more. That did not mean, however, that the number of people working in factories reduced. Granted, the number of people required to get a car out of production might have reduced, and in most cases people were taken off the jobs they did in respective manufacturing departments.  However, what also happened is that more cars were manufactured, there was more money available to set up factories, and over time, labor-intensive jobs were upgraded or redesigned. Hence, more jobs were created.

If we talk of banking, ATMs have a similar story. These machines were designed to ‘replace tellers completely’. In effect, while ATMs became omnipresent and inevitable for all banking, the number of tellers (or teller work profiles) employed by banks increased manifold as well. Banks figured they could open up more branches, and in these branches the kind of work tellers did was more than just counting cash and dispensing money. They were also focusing on customers and customers' specific requirements, in turn, building more business for the bank. The virtuous cycle of skill upgrade and higher output sustained despite all further advancements in technology.

What’s new this time?
The claim that recent technological advancements, especially automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, internet of things (IoT) are a threat to jobs is an argument that's turned on its head.

When you think of the kind of jobs automation replaced in the past, it was mostly in the manual labour or blue collar category. Last couple of decades' advancements in workflow software, content management, productivity software, business rules management, including the recent robotic process automation – in short, most information technologies – have, in fact, aided progress in orchestration and decision making as well. This means that not only the data entry folks, but supervision and management jobs have also been replaced by technologies.

This trend – of replacing human decision making and management skills – is further speeding up with advancements in analytics and AI, including further automation in the areas of business process management.

Does that mean that middle managers and knowledge workers would lose jobs? The answer is, no.

Granted, the threat is real. However, we will have to look at the underlying pattern here. And, that pattern is - “automation primarily replaces the repetitive, mundane and routine parts of a knowledge worker’s job, freeing up the individual’s bandwidth to perform the real tasks expected of the knowledge worker, also creating further cash flow for the business to grow and as a whole the scope of work expected of people”.

The flip side of this argument is that those with a particular manual skill are still losing their jobs. Obviously, there’s an immediate pressure on people to upgrade their skills or change working habits to perform real knowledge work.  However, that is what have precisely been the expectations of business as well as workers, since forever. People get bored doing the same things over and over again, and without an external impetus to improve their working environment, the productivity as well as motivation goes down over time.

So, in essence, automation is not actually taking away jobs. It is only nudging people to perform more fulfilling and progressive tasks. It is allowing businesses to create a more balanced working environment, where people can apply their experience and decision making skills. Automation, in this sense, is a major boost to knowledge worker empowerment.

Net, Net;
In every business, work profiles are separated into several strata. People are still locked into mundane, routine activities, which are mostly tiring and draining. Enterprises want to move forward and grow, and lower productivity and demotivated workforce are huge bottlenecks. Automation frees up latent human talent, equips enterprises to accomplish more, creates more high value jobs and empowers knowledge workers.

The author is Senior Vice President Technology, Newgen Software

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