There are so many articles written about how technology will replace our jobs. In one Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, the author went so far as saying technology will change work purpose and meaning. It even references how economist John Maynard Keynes projected technological unemployment in 1930 (projecting out 100 years):
“This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.”
I agree that a higher percentage of people than ever before are not working just to put food on their table, but are working to create a higher level of freedom for themselves. But I do not agree with the doomsday speculation that automation and artificial intelligence will remove millions of jobs from the workplace. What if companies embrace automation to create a win-win scenario, or a positive sum game?
Positive Sum Game
In the book Angel Investing, David Rose outlines two classes of engagement in game theory: zero and positive sum.
“[Zero sum] describes a contest in which there are a fixed number of resources and a fixed number of players. For one player to gain resources, or win, the other player(s) must give up resources, or lose. The combined total change of all players during the game is therefore zero. In a positive sum game, however, both sides can gain at the same time, and often gain more by cooperating than by acting on their own.” (p121)
The current thought leadership on automation is casting the process as a zero sum game. Robots are taking jobs away from humans, which means the latter will lose. The perception is that the amount of jobs (resources) are finite and the amount of players is finite.
But, David goes on to identify fault in the logic of the zero sum game:
- Resources are not finite if you are helping the company grow
- Players are not finite, either due to the growth or due to aging baby-boomer population
This largely becomes a philosophical argument because you cannot really stop or even slow technological progression. But what if RPA is not part of a zero sum game and actually starts to benefit the workforce instead of replace the workforce? For example, in places like Japan, automation is even needed due to the aging workforce.
Automation removes the day-to-day mundane aspects of a job and allows workers to stay more engaged.
Recently, Ashling Partners conducted a survey on employee engagement (n=79). Our results included:
• 86% of respondents believe their contributions at work have a meaningful impact on the overall success of the organization.
• While 56% of respondents believe that the majority of their time is not spent on activities that are meaningful to the overall success of the organization.
• Finally, 95% of respondents believe if their work contributions were more meaningful to the overall success of the organization, they would be more engaged as employees.
In other words, most employees believe they are making a meaningful difference at the company overall but also believe that a majority of their specific tasks are not contributing to overall success of the organization. Most of their tasks are not meaningful, but the remainder of their work does provide a meaningful contribution – enough for them to believe they make a meaningful contribution overall.
Automation would remove mundane, repetitive and administrative tasks, allowing the employees to focus on the meaningful activities. Employees also believe that they will become more engaged.
This would be my expectation of a win-win scenario. Automation cannot do activities that require creativity and emotional intelligence as well as values and judgement. People will always be needed in an organization. If they are truly making a meaningful difference, then they are overall adding value to the organization by their contributions. However, 95% believe they would be more engaged and therefore could make an even bigger impact to the organization if they were allowed to focus on the meaningful tasks instead of the administrative ones.
Organizations looking to create win-win scenarios need to embrace technology as a means of creating benefits for their employees instead of replacing them. The goal should be to create a more engaged employee who is consistently learning and growing. Employees need to embrace the constant evolution of technology and understand that their jobs will change over and over. The organization and the employee need to be mutually aligned with this understanding.
In reality, there will be winners and losers with change, as there always have been. Telephone operators lost their jobs to technology innovation, however many more jobs were created by technology in the Telecom industry. Companies need to be ready for change and embrace how they can be more competitive with technology changes. Employees need to embrace life-long learning and be more adaptable and pragmatic to the evolving needs of an organization. Overall, the workforce may still benefit if they are open to change.
Peter Sondergaard from Gartner writes about his time recently at the 2018 World Economic Forum:
“What I found most compelling were discussions focused on whether or not AI, in its broadest definition, will replace or augment work. The headlines might lead you to believe that only disastrous scenarios are possible — that the more organizations adopt AI, the more jobs will become irrelevant. But AI isn’t binary. Some jobs will be lost. However there is not a one-to-one correlation between the use of AI and en masse job elimination or replacement.”
“In fact, the contrary is true. AI augments human capabilities. It increases our accuracy, speeds our decision making and increases our productivity. And, as was true of the Industrial Revolution, technological advances as a result of AI will spur job creation. In 2020, AI will create 2.3 million jobs, while eliminating 1.8 million — a net growth of half a million new positions. Organizations will realize an added benefit as in 2021 AI augmentation will generate $2.9 trillion of business value and save 6.2 billion hours of worker productivity.”
A Responsiveness to Change Drives the Positive Sum Game
Overall, technology is clearly here to stay. Employers can incorporate technology with their workforce by seeing a “zero sum game” and employees fighting change or they can look to embrace technology and create a win-win situation for all affected parties.
After all, as Charles Darwin once wrote:
It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.”