One of the biggest challenges facing a plethora of industries is the threat of automation. Since the industrial revolution and the Ford-T production line, many organisations have reaped the rewards that machines and mass production can bring. Yet as that automation gradually morphs into the rise of artificial intelligence, and looks likely to threaten the labour market as we know it, it is little wonder that organisations are suffering from automation anxiety.
The term has gained traction in commentary of recent months. The British-based Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) recently started a network in conjunction with Sussex University to ‘explore innovative methods by which the humanities might address contemporary cultural anxiety about new forms of automation.’
The Economist explored the notion that, though many have come to accept that manual or unskilled labour will be most vulnerable to automation, increasingly “white-collar” jobs such as doctors are becoming increasingly dependent on advanced technology, which has an accuracy in diagnosis that humans are unable to match. With even jobs previously considered “safe” looking likely to one day fall prey to smart technology, how can organisations ensure that they maintain a competitive edge and are able to remain relevant in an automated age?
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One of the services we offer at think is the chance for organisations to walk through their future strategy, envisaging the challenges they may face 10, 50 or even 100 years from now. Part of this process involves thinking big, and this kind of preparation is exactly what is required of organisations if they are to keep pace with change.
An article by Ben Pring, Director at Cognizant Technology Solutions, for ITProPortal argued that ‘while the future of an automated workforce can be frightening, the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution will create a huge wave of opportunity for businesses and individuals who are prepared.’ Pring suggests that ‘early digital economy winners have aligned the Three Ms – materials, machines and models – and use them to their advantage’ to navigate this new world, which is already beginning to take shape in the form of the Internet of Things (IoT) and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).
One of the key steps to take at this early stage is to invest in the systems and processes that have the capacity to analyse the vast sums of data that will inevitably come with ever-increasing technological connectedness. Simply absorbing such data will quickly prove inefficient when it cannot be monetised or capitalised upon to inform strategy. Taking these steps now will ensure that organisations can ‘hit the ground running’ when IoT and AI come to increasingly dominate customer relations and sales.
Although it is easy to see why many repetitive aspects of working life, from managing diaries to monitoring finances, could come under threat from automation, there is still a fundamental advantage that human labour has over our artificial brethren – creativity. As yet, AI technology has not been able to out-create human team members, and by entrenching an organisational culture in which creativity can thrive, businesses can ensure that they have a long term strength to counter the creeping challenges posed by automation.
Marketing Week has suggested that organisations need to work hard to ensure that creativity and innovation don’t suffer as the industry becomes ever more automated. Quoting business analyst Mike Fitzsimons, who authored the book Lobotomy: The Marginalisation of Creativity and How to Become Human Again, it is argued that:
‘There is a risk that the uniqueness that creativity brings to the world and its decision-making process is being marginalised by what I would call continual, systemic automation, where everything now is being targeted in terms of [turning it into] a process.’
He continues by saying that, if creativity is to be understood as being ‘about things that you have never thought about and making connections that have never been made,’ simply automating what is already known risks producing a ‘race to the bottom’ in which it is difficult to gain an edge over competitors or to come up with ‘the next big thing’.
To counter this trend, it is suggested that organisations need to put the processes and structures in place to marry together creativity and data, which are often presumed to be two separate functions to be performed by separate teams in siloes. Fitzsimons claims that ‘by giving humans the space to use the creative side to their mind and then by knotting that together with the already well developed logical and rational processes that we have’, organisations can equip themselves to deal with the rise of automation and ensure that the creative edge over AI is preserved.
Whatever the future of automation and AI brings, through tried and tested innovation processes organisations can ensure they remain relevant and competitive in a fast-paced, ever-changing world.
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