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Grow Your Business Technology

Workplace Automation is Everywhere, and It's Not Just About Robots

Workplace Automation is Everywhere, and It's Not Just About Robots
Credit: Willyam Bradberry/Shutterstock

"Automation" often conjures fears of a robot workforce displacing humans, inevitably leading to mass unemployment. While some jobs have indeed been shed – think advanced manufacturing plants – new roles in software development and content creation have developed to support automation.

The automated economy, much like the industrial revolution, will remake the workforce of tomorrow, and while the growing pains are real – after all, conventional manufacturing experience doesn't always jibe with more in-demand software development skills – automation offers much in the way of doing away with mundane tasks and providing additional layers of context to the decision-making process.

There's much debate over what the future of automation holds for employees and consumers, but observers tend to agree on one point: We're only in the early stages of automation. Everything from payroll and purchase orders to manufacturing and customer service is ripe for automation, and there are numerous companies working on new solutions to streamline tedious tasks and improve current operations through the provision of additional information. Solving the problem of the displaced worker remains imperative, but automation is an increasingly accessible tool to free up the human mind for higher-order tasks.

What exactly does automation look like? As a small business owner, you probably already use at least one common form of automation: email marketing. Companies like Zoho and Constant Contact offer automated email marketing services that have become common tools for many entrepreneurs. Another common example is sales enablement software, which helps keep a sales rep on the right track to land a potential customer.

"Automation … takes a lot of forms," Fred Townes, co-founder and COO of real estate tech company Placester, told Business News Daily. "For small businesses, the most important thing is about (repetition). When you find something you do more than once that adds value … you want to look into automation."

Automating those sorts of tasks, Townes added, frees up humans for tasks that are less mundane or more valuable than those that can be completed automatically . And as the cloud has developed, automation software as a service (SaaS) has expanded greatly, reducing the need for companies to maintain expensive servers and improving accessibility to these powerful tools to small business owners as well, in addition to the enterprise corporations. Companies often simply set their own rules for automation solutions given a set of conditions, tailoring the process to suit their own needs, Townes said.

Automation is also gaining ground when it comes to 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, Sharma said. [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."

Automated technologies will no doubt continue to develop and evolve as humanity reckons with its ability to delegate previously undesirable or clunky tasks to machines.

"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 learns to draw on more sources and synthesize 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 is already underway. In an attempt 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.

"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."

According to Sharma, Sage has actually built "imperfections" into its AI. For example, the answer to a user's question might already be queued up, but Sage built a slight "thinking" delay into its system to simulate a more human interaction. An ellipsis in the text version 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.

The transition to a fully automated economy does not come without costs. Workers whose jobs are automated out of the economy certainly cannot be left behind. Several proposals exist to support those displaced by an increasingly automated world, such as retraining programs and universal basic income. Each is worth exploring individually, but for the users, Sharma said it all starts with education around what automation is and what it is not.

"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."

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 a 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 of 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?"

Adam C. Uzialko

Adam received his Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University. He worked for a local newspaper and freelanced for several publications after graduating college. He can be reached by email, or follow him on Twitter.