By Dr Lindsay McMillan
Automated machines and artificial intelligence (AI) are set to become the favoured option for certain tasks in the workplace. Bookkeeping and supermarket cashier work are two areas at high risk of being completely computerised in the next twenty years, according to a report by the Productivity Commission.
Previously on this blog, I gave a couple of Australian examples where automation and artificial intelligence were changing the workplace. Brick-laying robots and self-driving cars are becoming a more efficient choice in construction and mining than human labour.
Increasingly we can expect workplaces to be part human and part machine, where tasks are shared between people and robots. So how can businesses make this work? Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy and Future of Work, Ed Husic co-wrote an opinion piece in the AFR recently describing Australia as being “spectacularly unprepared for automation”.
Part of this inadequate preparation is linked to the lack of strategic planning. Reventure’s own research found two-thirds of 50 CEOs surveyed said they wished they could step back from day-to-day matters to focus on long term planning – the big picture.
Here are two big picture items to consider before transitioning your workplace to part-machine.
1. Look at ways to retain experienced employees.
Unsurprisingly, most of the pain will come from redundancies. The biggest mistake businesses can make is to think automation will be purely a logistical question of increasing efficiency and output. Redundancies will be painful and emotional, especially for those who have made a career out of their current job.
However, a redundancy does not have to mean leaving an industry for good. One thoughtful approach at General Electric (GE) looks at retaining experienced workers in a new capacity, training them to oversee the machinery that replaced them. Although not all jobs can be saved this way, it is clearly beneficial to both parties; GE benefits from employees that have an understanding of the manual process and can identify when machines get it wrong, and employees retain a job they have experience in.
2. Check the value of doing tasks manually.
Not to suggest businesses do a U-turn on automation and AI, however there is a need to examine what value you obtain from performing tasks manually.
An example is the value of repetitive tasks for employees as a training device. Entry-level work may be mundane; however, it often gives employees a basic understanding of an industry – paralegals for example cut their teeth on trawling through legal documents.
Identifying and filling a training gap will ensure your employees’ skills will not diminish over time.
There is an argument to be made that mechanical maintenance is a lot easier than “maintaining employees” so to speak – particularly given the fact our research shows 72 per cent of workers are still looking for purpose and meaning in their work. However automation and AI could only serve to increase this statistic, with employees questioning their value if a piece of machinery could do the same work.
Delivering Purpose and Meaning provides proactive strategies that looks at effectively managing an integrated workforce that are increasingly looking to contextualise their work in a bigger organisational narrative. Before workplaces think about introducing AI into their workplace, they need to check whether they have the basics down including an effective and collaborative culture. Machines are knocking at the door, is your workplace ready to open it?