Much of what has been written, for good reason, on the subject of automation is about the potential impact on jobs, with topics including:
- How many jobs will be lost?
- What type of jobs are most or least likely to go first?
- How can one defend one’s role against the specter of creeping automation?
There is no question we face a tipping point with profound implications for our society and economy as cars and trucks go driverless, automated agents start taking customer calls, and bots process all that work in the back office. There is real fear that the rise of the robots signals that human may be on the decline, or at the very least, will have very little left to do and may require universal basic income just to get by. But even though the percentage of work that can be automated may be uncomfortably high, the workforce of the near future will still be a mixed one, where humans aided by new technologies like AI and predictive analytics work “side by side” with robots. Welcome to the digital workforce.
Around the world organizations sense this new reality and are coming to the realization it will be upon them sooner than they thought. The time is now to begin considering what that digital workforce will be like and prepare their leaders and employees for this transformation. Examples recently from my work with companies on their digital strategy include:
- Leaders thinking beyond the short-term benefits of an RPA implementation to the long-term impact on their culture, deciding to build in employee change management and re-training at the front end of their automation roadmap
- Questions arising about who “manages” the robots, monitoring throughput and quality of output, determining when improvement or replacement is required
- Process owners designing service value chains to ensure seamless “hand-offs” from Tier 1 chatbots to Tier 2 customer service representatives.
These signs point to a workforce where the line between human and digital work blurs, replaced by a spectrum ranging from fully automated to not automated with a good deal of work in the middle space where human and digital labor works together. Three to five years from now it will not be unusual for teams working a project to have support from a Siri-like resource capable of accessing all of the organization’s data. Ten years from now that resource may be leading the team. Career advancement in that environment will likely go to employees who demonstrate the strongest human/robot collaboration skills. Managers will need to get good at discerning what work is best done digitally, which requires the human touch and which benefits from them working together.
As we move up the robotics chain from transaction bots to AI enabled robots Human Resources will begin to develop policies and programs reflecting the new reality that many of the “resources” at work are not human.
- Will robots get an employee ID? Probably.
- Will they be eligible for the annual employee satisfaction survey? Not clear.
What are the strategy implications of the digital workforce? It will be a source of massive disruption – and opportunity. No industry will be untouched and every role will be touched in some way. Companies that see it coming, recognize it as an opportunity and seize that opportunity will build sustainable competitive advantage. Others caught off guard may see their best talent move to faster growing, more digital enabled firms. Ironically, the best career choice of the future may be the company with the most, or better put, the best robots.
Regardless of how one feels about these changes, they are coming. The era of the digital workforce is nearly upon us. Time to prepare.
About the Author
Gregory North is a recognized thought leader in enterprise and digital transformation with over twenty-five years of experience channeling the power of automation through the lens of process, focused on the customer experience.