Why job automation is a good thing
As workflows become increasingly automated, some people are worried about how it may affect job security.
According to the latest World Economic Forum report, automation and robots will replace some seven million jobs in the next five years. An Oxford University study found that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are “highly automatable.”
The news sounds scary. But people who skim over these headlines are missing the big picture. While some jobs will indeed be lost, others will be created, and many more will involve less tedium and more creativity. In the long run, job automation will expand the economy, even though the occupations themselves will be different from the ones we have today.
More time for strategic thinking — and customers
While processes will become increasingly digitized, very few of those jobs will be entirely automated, at least not in the near or medium term, a recent McKinsey report found. Instead, workers will devote less time — or no time — to repetitious drudge work, and more time to high-level strategy and dealing with customers. This especially impacts small to midsize businesses whose owners and managers are being pulled in numerous directions at once, making it easy to either neglect backend processes, or conversely, spend far too much time on them.
You can see it happening already in areas such as finance, where modernized accounts payable processes free workers to concentrate on solving high-level problems — or listen to customers and learn what new services they would like, leading to possible new lines of business (and probably, new automated workflows).
In fact, job automation will reduce errors and increase productivity tremendously. It will become an important competitive differentiator, the McKinsey report said.
Jobs that can be fully automated have a higher chance of disappearing. You likely won’t be seeing as many want ads for assembly line workers, call center employees, or data entry clerks. Meanwhile, insurance underwriters and tax preparers who deal with the basics will need to learn new skills.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning
In addition, as artificial intelligence and machine learning become more sophisticated, higher-level jobs will also be affected, but not eliminated. This process has already begun.
In law, for example, e-discovery algorithms have been used for years to find documents relevant to cases, saving millions of dollars. The software is accurate, too — it finds 95 percent of relevant documents, compared to just 51 percent for humans
So you might think that paralegals, who used to do this work, would go the way of the dinosaur. On the contrary, the occupation has grown faster than the labor force as a whole, increasing by over 50,000 since the late 1990s. Firms that save money on document search can use it to expand, and there’s still plenty of work for paralegals to do.
IT is another example. With so many functions moving to the cloud and fewer servers to manage, it can be easy to immediately question the need for an onsite IT team. Yet in 2015, IT employment rose in every occupation and industry except oil and gas, with an overall increase of 3.1 percent, or 152,000 jobs.
IT workers may not be splicing wires and measuring disk space anymore, but they are managing cybersecurity, streaming services, and internet of things (IoT) applications. They still have to support office machines and make sure systems integrate smoothly. And, somebody has to manage all those relationships with cloud vendors and make sure their programs are tied to existing systems without conflict. As small business owners know, this can often be their responsibility — whether they are comfortable or educated in the subject matter or not.
In the end
History has taught us that workers will learn new skills required by the changing markets and the evolving technologies. It’s also taught us companies will adapt their processes and people to these innovations. But although job automation can perform many tasks that are good for, and needed by small businesses, they can’t replace the human creativity and people skills that ultimately nurture the relationship with your prospects and customers.
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