Work Automation: What You Need To Know and What To Do

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Automation, disruption, robots, artificial intelligence - there's enough hyperbole and buzzwords out there on these subjects to make anyone's eyes glaze over and completely shut off to any more to do with it at all.  Even Elon Musk has something to say here.  I think it's more hype than not and certainly not to be feared because it's happened for the last 10,000 years already and will continue so well into our hopefully long future as a human species.  I hope to distill some of this hype for my readers, provide some positive viewpoints, and sprinkle on some of my technical commentary so that you can leave this piece with a clearer understanding, further resources to get more informed, as well as actionable takeaways for now and in the future.

I'm going to speak specifically about task automation here and NOT about job automation.  More precisely I'm speaking to TASK automation at an elementary level.  To be VERY clear, the hierarchy of work and it's conduct goes something like this:

  1. Information and decisions lead to
  2. Movements and minute actions and those aggregate to
  3. Operations and they transform to
  4. Tasks, which then compose
  5. Jobs and when you put a one or more jobs together you get
  6. A Process, and lots of processes interweave to comprise
  7. A system of production of goods or services of some sort
  8. A system-of-systems of production aggregates to markets/industries and those merge into
  9. Economies

Tasks are essentially when something useful in our world starts to emerge.  For example, when a form is filled out in a service process or a stamping task is completed in manufacturing, those parts of the hierarchy are when valuable work begins to be accomplished.  Automation is the buzzword attached to what is more fundamentally "productivity" or rather the relationship between inputs, tasks/jobs/processes and outputs.  Automation is merely the most sophisticated form of productivity enhancement and often entails removing the human almost entirely from the work (sometimes keeping a technician or machine operator in the loop).  The more productive you are, the more outputs you get for a given set of inputs and the operations/tasks performed on said inputs.  I know this is all pretty wordy but it's essential to understand this hierarchy so we can all get beyond the hype and get to what's at heart in the conversation.  Productivity has been gradually improving for all of modern human history going back 10,000 or more years to the start of the agricultural revolutions across the world.  Less and less labor is required, over time, to produce a given output, be it potatoes, grains, pencils, or airplanes.  By and large, we as humans have been ever increasing our productive use of resources and time to produce the goods and services we all enjoy.  Now, since the Industrial Revolution, we've gotten bit better with productive use of machinery and equipment and in more recent times, fully automating tasks and processes with some combination of machinery, equipment, robots, and software (computers). 

Over the span of history, people have been uncomfortable with change at a very basic level, especially when it comes to their livelihood of making an income.  Stepping back from that, you have any large-scale changes in productivity in ones craft being particularly uncomfortable as now you don't have an easy transfer option to perhaps another company or geography if the technology is widely available.  So now you're particular skillset isn't as in high demand because theoretically it is available for better quality and productivity at a cheaper price (theoretically...) AND you can't switch easily.  Feeling boxed in yet?  Then you take that into a full market or industry and you have a LOT more people (owners and employees) concerned about transitions taking place seemingly outside of their control (or is it?).  Going back to the Luddite riots in Great Britain in the early 1800's and plenty of other instances, people and whole groups get really upset as the world changes around them.

Over time, however, we've seen the "pie" of both products and services as well as tasks/jobs/businesses/markets required to provide them increase and get larger as productivity has increased.  This has always been the case.  We don't see millions of unemployed farmers as vast productivity improvements have been made over the past 100 years in the US.  Now only about 1%-ish of the population is involved in farming that feeds the other 99%.  We've all found something else to do with our time and abilities.  That's just a simple example.  The current argument and fear about automation is essentially: This Time it's different, this time it will happen faster than before and to such a large scope of tasks/jobs that we're in for serious disruption and trouble.  Not so in my technical opinion.  I say technical because Industrial and Systems Engineering is fundamentally about productivity and work, at any scale, and I have a deep education and applied background in the field so I have a little bit of a solid foundation on my perspective. I also come from a reasonable understanding of economics (micro AND macro).

Much of the current hype goes back to an elaborate study in 2013 performed by Oxford University.  I applaud the very fine work they accomplished but I don't agree with their conclusions.  I DO agree that in the next 10 years or so up to 30% of TASKS could be automated but that doesn't equate to full jobs as we know them. I'll leave it to the reader to fully digest the study and it's well worth it in my opinion, for a history lesson as well as for the fundamental work they did.  Also, if you'd like to explore the results and how they're relevant to you see this Tableau Visualization done by the consulting company McKinsey.  Much of the hype today originates with this study but as with much in media, care is not given to making TASKS synonymous with JOBS which is a HUGE mistake.

What to Do In Life and Business

As you can already tell, I'm a bit of an optimist when it comes to the creativity and innate potential of individuals, businesses, and industries ingenuity, but all with proper design and planning mixed with serious grit.  In the case of task automation, I kind of look at it like this Harvard Business Review video summarizes, as shedding the menial and repetitive tasks most humans DO NOT enjoy and freeing up capacity to pursue creative pursuits is REALLY what the positive potential is here. All the creative potential unleashed upon work and industry will be amazing and we've already scene how amazing it is.

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That being said, I suggest the following strategies and tactics for business and life to position well for ANY major changes in your business, job, or industry and not just what some form of automation might bring:

  1. Get Informed from the Source - don't rely on mainstream media.  Get to the most trusted experts and studies and even then, triangulate across many to form an informed opinion.
    1. As an example of original source material useful here, in the Oxford study referenced above, they describe 3 engineering "bottlenecks" to automation in tasks which are incredibly difficult to automate and will be for some time. In a business or job, having one or a combination of these capabilities as central to your offerings and competitive advantage will buffer you against automation having a major impact.  
      1. Creative Intelligence
      2. Social Intelligence
      3. Fine Motor Control 
  2. Integrate automation strategically in your life and business - being more productive in your work is ALWAYS paramount, no matter what stage of the business lifecycle you're in but it's also important in life as well.  Do not encumber yourself with low value tasks when your time, effort, and attention should be allocated to high value, high meaning work and relationships.  Not only will with you save money with higher outputs for lower costs (in theory, so prepare thoroughly) but you'll be able to do more with less in general.  Write down and define your daily tasks and processes and find out what tools can make them simpler, faster, better, and cheaper.  This can be daunting so contact me directly if you'd like help with trade studies and economic analysis on getting the most out of your investments.
    1. PS - productivity improvements should NEVER equate to layoffs and job losses in any direct way.  This is just good business as your employees and support won't help you in making the improvements nor will people want to come to work for you either.  You should look at it as freeing up potential for other higher value work (it's your job to find said work and move resources appropriately).  Plus it's just more ethical in my philosopher engineers opinion!
  3. Continuously Improve - in life and business, find the continuous improvement systems, principles, methods, and tools that help make you more productive and valuable to your jobs, employers, and relationships.  The world will continue to improve and grow without you so you have to find ways to stay ahead of the ever growing frontier of productivity and value creation.  Please PLEASE contact me if you need more help or consultation and I'm more than happy to help.
  4. Learn Better, Faster, and More Deeply - this goes for employees, employers, and whole businesses.  The more "flat" you can make ANY learning curve, the faster you can adapt and stay ahead of major changes in your business, market, and industry.  Learning go hand in hand with the applied side of actual continuous improvement (demonstrating your learning).  Read books, invest in better training, and know how you can and do learn individually and as a team in your business.
  5. Plan for Flexibility - individually, as a family, or as a business, plan ahead by inventorying your capabilities, skillsets, and assets (tangible and intangible) and analyzing how flexible or transferable they are to another job, industry, or geography.  This can be really simple or a thorough analysis and plan.  This should be a part of any long term planning routine you have in your life and business and a good way to de-risk yourself and your business.
    1. Financially - a solid cash or at least liquid asset cushion can help to avoid catastrophic cash flow failures here.  Plenty of businesses and people do not have one and think it's impossible and who DOESN'T like seeing a pile of money sitting around.  You can invest in some interest generating vehicle or even in some assets that take time to get cash out of, so that it can be making some money for you.  Talk to your financial advisor to get the best strategies and vehicles for you here.
    2. Identify lowest cost scenarios and solutions - here again is some planning ahead and many people avoid this like the plague but the Importance is SO high and the outcomes can be SO dramatic that you're asking for trouble by not following through.  Knowing what situations MIGHT happen and a couple actions you can take quickly to avoid or absorb the consequences will pay dividends I promise you.
  6. Better Strategic Positioning - this isn't just for businesses, you can do this for your career as well.  Find a niche that is either hard to automate (see above for the 3 bottlenecks) or isn't lucrative/attractive enough for large, money flush industry's/companies to get into and automate.  This goes even for startups looking to automate the tasks/work as well.  If there isn't a reasonable return on investment in 5 or 10 years for a startup, it won't be pursued or funded in most cases.  On the flipside of the niche is the Generalist business or capability set.  What I mean here is a business that is agile enough and retooling capable enough as well as your individual skillsets/capabilities are transferable enough such that you can reasonably quickly, and with lowest possible switching costs, change to a different way of doing business or different product/service set altogether.

My opinion is that there is many positive improvements to our quality of life and productive business opportunities with the upside of automation and productivity improvements.  There always has been and I believe always will be.  What we DO have to do is learn how to adapt more quickly, in business and life, and that's a HUGE part of the mission for Next Callings, and that is drastically improve the economic mobility (ability to change jobs, businesses, locations, quickly, low cost, and with high success rates) in our country.  Contact me now if you need help in your life and business to position well and do great things for your life and business today in the process!