There was a time when the term "automation" was tightly associated with advanced manufacturing plants full of robotics. While it is true that this is a prime example of workplace automation – the process of replacing human labor with machine labor – it is far from the only example. Automation is present in modern businesses small and large, ranging from subtle features in common software applications to more obvious implementation, like self-driving vehicles.
There is much debate about where workplace automation will lead the economy, but observers tend to agree on one thing: The trend is only gaining momentum. Every business process, such as human resource management and customer service departments, is on the table for automation, especially as technology becomes more sophisticated. No matter what the outcome, automation will undoubtedly change the workplace and, indeed, the wider economy. The only question is how much will it drastically transform the workplace?
Automation in the workplace today
What does automation look like if it isn't towering robotics? Sometimes it's as simple as a set of tools housed within common business software programs. At its core, automation is about implementing a system to complete repetitive, easily replicated tasks without the need for human labor.
"Automation takes a lot of forms," said Fred Townes, co-founder and COO of real estate tech company Placester. "For small businesses, the most important thing is [repetition]. When you find something you do more than once that adds value … you want to look into automation."
Historically, automation required expensive servers and employing a team of experts to maintain them. For many small businesses, this was a cost-prohibitive measure that simply put automation out of reach. With the development of cloud-based platforms, however, automation tools are now accessible to even the smallest companies, Townes said.
Examples of common workplace automation
Many small business owners already use at least one common form of automation: email marketing. Companies like Zoho and Constant Contact offer software that allows users to tailor the parameters of their email marketing campaign to their liking and then set it to run automatically. For example, an introductory email can be uploaded into the software and sent as soon as a contact is added. The software can be configured to send a follow-up email days later only to those who opened the original email, without requiring any person on your staff to lift a finger. You can use these automation tools to develop relatively sophisticated email marketing campaigns with minimal attention.
Automating these repetitive business processes, Townes said, frees up humans for tasks that are less mundane or more valuable than those that can be completed by machines and software. However, more advanced forms of automation like machine learning can be used to complete higher order tasks that require a bit more adaptability. The ability of these software programs to learn over time means they can more quickly and effectively pore through massive troves of data and contextualize that information in a useful way for supporting internal decision-making.
For example, machine learning automation is making inroads in talent acquisition and employee recruitment, said Kriti Sharma, vice president of bots and AI at accounting and payroll software company Sage. For human resources departments, automating processes like tracking down potential candidates and scheduling interviews frees up time for humans to examine potential hires and determine who is the best fit for their organization. [See Related Story: How to Choose the Right Performance Management Software]
"It turns out it is a big pain to hire the right people," Sharma said. "A lot is happening in recruitment systems and using AI to match the right people to the right team for the right projects."
Customer service departments are also getting an automation makeover with the introduction of tools like chatbots. These consumer-facing tools automate typical customer service interactions, answering inquiries immediately and only referring customers to a representative when the chatbot is insufficient for handling their needs. Up to 80 percent of customer service interactions could be handled by a chatbot alone, offering businesses the potential to significantly cut costs associated with conventional customer service.
Opportunities to automate common workplace processes are everywhere, which is why automation is becoming a common element of every business. Whether it's providing good customer service, streamlining the hiring process, or more efficiently managing marketing campaigns, automation is already playing a role in many businesses. As technology improves, more tasks will become available for automation as well; we've only seen the beginning of workplace automation.
Machine learning as a driver of more sophisticated automation
Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) enable new forms of "smart" automation. As the software learns, the more adaptable it becomes. These technologies open the door for automation of higher-order tasks as well, rather than just basic, repetitive tasks.
"I think there's a lot of focus at the moment on these tasks that humans don't want to do," Sharma said. "But what's going to happen in the future is … automation will not just be about automating those tasks humans are doing today, but it will be about realizing potential opportunities."
As data sets become more thorough and available, and as software draws on more sources and synthesizes more data points, Sharma said, contextual information in human decision-making will only improve. Machine learning, then, will serve as a supplement (perhaps even an enhancement) to human knowledge. Combine those capabilities with improved data retention through the internet of things (IoT) and the possibilities are seemingly endless.
Townes proposed that a shift toward more attractive user experiences with machine learning programs is already underway. To make interacting with these tools more natural and intuitive, companies will begin tailoring AI and automated technologies for a more organic, human experience, he said.
To make customer service chatbots appear more human, for example, Sage has intentionally built "imperfections" into its AI. For example, the answer to a user's question might already be queued up by a chatbot, but Sage built a slight "thinking" delay into its system to simulate a more human customer service interaction. An ellipsis in the chat box indicates that the bot is "writing" a response, even though it immediately pulled up the queried information. Sharma said initial user feedback to the feature is highly positive, reflecting a desire for a more human, less machine-like interactive experience.
"Things will get more and more accessible," he said. "These technologies will never replace the human being, but they will relieve the human being of the things that are less valuable, relatively speaking. [Humans] will be able to instead focus on those things that require creativity and touch; we'll see more accessible, better experiences, and we'll see human beings move to their highest and best use."
For humans, the shock of an increasingly automated world can be difficult to process. According to Sharma, successfully integrating automation into human life starts with a comprehensive effort to educate people about what automation is, what it isn't and what it means for them.
"Users are often initially surprised [by the capabilities of automation,]" Sharma said. "The first time they see something automatically there's a bit of delight, and it's also a bit scary until you show them the process the software went through. It's more of an educational challenge, not so much a tech problem."
Easing the pain of transition
The steady march of workplace automation has prompted discussion about the future of a fully automated economy. Efficiency, convenience and profitability are naturally atop the list, but so too are concerns about the fates of workers whose jobs are automated out of existence. There are several proposals to support those displaced in an increasingly automated world, such as retraining programs and universal basic income.
When it comes to supporting those left behind in an automated economy, there are more questions than answers, and there are many competing perspectives. Some, like Fred Goff, CEO of Jobcase, anticipate that expanded access to educational and networking opportunities will offer workers the opportunity to remake their careers and find a way in the new economy to support themselves and their families.
"The same kind of tech that displaces certain workers also opens up new opportunities," Goff said. "Work life has changed to the point where everyone is essentially their own free agent; managing yourself has really become the theme in the last 10 years, and so we're trying to empower people through tools and open-ended community."
Jobcase itself is a community of 70 million people, including experts and professionals in a variety of industries. As far as education goes, Goff pointed to resources like Khan Academy, which offers free courses on topics like economics and coding. Certifying the skills learned on these platforms, Goff said, will likely come increasingly from completing freelance tasks, rather than from academic institutions.
"The rise of platforms for gigs and 1099 labor are increasingly breaking down this notion of (skill certification)," Goff said. "It might still be difficult to get that full-time job, but building on contracted experience is a way to give that competency verification. In the education and training world, it means decoupling the certification of your education from the delivery of your education."
In other words, the people you've worked with would increasingly certify your skill set and level of competence, rather than an established institution with a four-year degree program.
Others, like James Wallace, co-founder of Exponential University, see an automated future that eschews the conventional notion of jobs altogether. Wallace said that by embracing automation and high tech, individuals could be empowered to create incomes on their own, without the need for a traditional, hierarchical company.
"We're living through something now that is unfortunate but necessary pain," Wallace said. "The conversation should be how to reduce those growing pains. The reality is the ultimate effect of automation is something very positive for everyone."
Naturally, Wallace said, the economic insecurity displaced workers feel is very real, but automation is not the enemy. Instead, Wallace hopes to educate people about leveraging this powerful technology to create their own incomes – essentially establishing a society of entrepreneurs and small companies.
"If we can establish a way to make sure we all have enough food, clothing and shelter to survive … and allow people to repurpose their gifts, unique abilities and enable them to proliferate that and sell it as a good or a service, then we're adding income," Wallace said. "We can create an opportunity to generate income for next to nothing, so why not teach people to leverage the tech that disrupted the marketplace in the first place to embrace it and use it for something more in line with who they are, as an expression of their unique abilities?"
Automation for efficiency and profitability
The bottom line of business process automation is, well, the bottom line. Automating processes saves time and allows resources to be diverted elsewhere. It means companies can remain smaller and more agile.
Increased efficiency, productivity and lower costs all translate to healthier profit margins for businesses small and large. How automation transforms the economy at large remains to be seen. However, it appears inevitable that we're headed toward a future of more automation.
What this means for businesses, workers and consumers will be the subject of much debate moving forward. One thing seems certain, however: If it can be automated, it will be.