Facing up to Automation – Responsibly

John Williams, Director of Digital Strategy at ILM, on how businesses should face up to automation responsibly

“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

There’s a good reason Bill Gates’ words are so often quoted; they cut right to the heart of what technology means to the world. People have a tendency to be overwhelmed by the lightening-quick pace of change – particularly when it comes to digital - and they often feel that it is a battle to try and keep their head above water.

All too frequently, this worldview leads to businesses taking a short-term approach when it comes to planning for the future, leaving organisations unprepared for the unexpected. But if businesses constantly look ahead, anticipating and adapting to the world around them – which must always include a close analysis of the present – much of the pain that comes from feeling ill-equipped to deal with the future can be eliminated.

I’m absolutely passionate about technology and the impact it has on the workplace. In my role as Director of Digital Strategy at ILM, a City & Guilds Group business and the UK’s leading provider of leadership and management qualifications, it’s my job to make sure that not only my team and our organisation is embracing new ways of working, but that we are educating and inspiring our customers to do the same.

Of course, digital has already transformed the way we work, in everything from product development, to research, to communications. Yet with the potential of new technologies ever-increasing, it can be easy to get carried away by all the opportunities – and indeed concerned by the challenges – that lie ahead.

Automation is one condition brought about by technological advancement that is constantly a subject of scrutiny. It throws up a huge number of considerations for businesses, from investing in new tools, rebuilding infrastructure, to overhauling product offerings. Most significantly, it calls the role of employees into question. New research by Deloitte and Oxford University suggests that since the year 2000 800,000 jobs in the UK have been lost to automation; over half of secretarial, half of travel agents and half of counter clerk jobs have gone. Naturally, this can lead to feelings of apprehension – even fear – of what automation might bring.

The problem is that it can be hard to set clear and certain strategies when technology moves at an alarming pace and quickly becomes outdated. What we’re witnessing now is a change as significant as that seen in the late 18th - 19th Century with the Industrial Revolution.  What we do, how we do it and where we do it could radically change. Jobs that we deemed safe could become obsolete as technology and big data cuts down processing and manufacturing times. Whilst it is impossible to eliminate uncertainty, businesses should always bear in mind their responsibility towards employees, even when in the midst of significant change.   

It seems then that, rather than relying on external (i.e. uncontrollable) factors to set the culture of their organisation, this must come from within. It is the behaviours and attitudes exhibited by business leaders that must ensure that a responsible approach comes first and foremost in change management – and that this permeates throughout organisations.

For example, greater productivity brought about by automation may result in an increase in organisational assets such as culture, cooperation and team work. The reason so much time is freed up is down to automation.The reason people are able to work from home is down to automation. The reason freelancing and temporary contracts are becoming so common is down to automation. The reason people are able to upskill with less resource is down to automation.

Rather than waiting for these trends to go even further, even to the point of threatening the existence of a business, we become leaders in the creation of new environments where these working practices can thrive. That means embracing the new collaborative workplace – equipping employees with finely-honed skills like communication, teamwork, and motivation – turning the challenges that face us into opportunities. To make a lasting impact, businesses must lead from the front, and put the structures in place to embrace the ongoing change.

The most effective way for organisations to bring employees on the transformative digital journey with them is to find and celebrate the common benefits that it brings. As technological capabilities increases, five billion people become connected, and productivity gains are continuous. Yes there may be consequences to this, but the earlier people make their plans and recognise the value they can gain, the better.