Automation means better jobs, not fewer
There has been an endless number of articles and blog posts written about the coming wave of automation. Whether it’s about the economic gains the world stands to achieve, the displacement of workers or a state of singularity achieved by runaway artificial intelligence, you can pick from countless flavors of theoretical outcomes portended by teaching machines to do things that people normally do — or can’t yet do.
To be perfectly clear, automation can and will definitely make certain highly repetitive or singularly tasked roles obsolete. But if we consider how automation relates to knowledge work in particular, we can see a different picture.
First, let’s get our definitions straight. According to the Corporate Finance Institute, famed management guru Peter Drucker coined the term and defined knowledge workers as “high-level workers who apply theoretical and analytical knowledge, acquired through formal training, to develop products and services.”
Let’s consider what kind of impact automation can have on this type of work, which can include anything from information technology fields to medicine to accounting, design, engineering, architecture, consulting or any number of other professions.
Automation for acceleration
The stark truth about knowledge workers is that they have essentially infinite work and finite capacity. We all tend to finish projects and tasks, but do we ever really finish our roles? If the amount of time that a task takes can be reduced or even eliminated, workers don’t just cease to have work to do. They’ll be able to work on tasks that aren’t automated. Hence, automation, in a broad sense, doesn’t necessarily eliminate roles, but rather, it speeds up the rate at which the rest of that role’s work can be performed.
Taking for example accounts receivable: Think about a week in the life of a director of finance for a small to midsized software company. She probably has plenty of billing and collection work on her plate, from issuing new invoices to customers, to sending out payment reminders on overdue balances and even accepting payments over phone or email and then posting those payments to the ledger. Let’s say she’s able to automate a large portion of those billing and collection tasks: Will she then be an unnecessary member of the team? Probably not. Will she find herself twiddling her thumbs, looking for other work? Highly unlikely.
Rather, she’ll be able to focus more of her attention, ability and effort on the other work that’s still on her plate. And sooner. Freeing up that scarce capacity in her work day will enable her to get to and complete the other work on her plate faster than she’d be able to otherwise.
Automation for prioritization
Now let’s think about a prioritization use case for automation. Taking that same example of our fearless director of finance and her newly discovered automation superpowers, how might things play out when she needs to follow up on 300 outstanding invoices during the course of one month?
In reality, there may be some important differences in all those invoices she has to tend to; for instance, there may be 10 or so that represent more than half of the company’s receivables for the period, and another five that are nearing their renewal dates and will need to be handled delicately. By automating collections for, not all, but most of the customers, our director of finance is able to give the very important or fragile ones the special care and attention they likely warrant.
Automation doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, a blanket effort across all of a function. But if it’s applied to the “long tail” of a highly repeatable function, automation can make it possible for the highest priorities within that function to benefit from the special care and attention they deserve.
Automation for customer expectation
While customers appreciate great service and being treated with a personal touch, they’re busy too and can also recognize external benefits from internal automation. That notion bears out clearly in bill payment trends. Consider these stats from ACI’s 2017 report, “How Americans Pay Their Bills:”
- More than half of all bills are now paid online via a biller, bank or third-party website.
- Bills paid by check declined 20 percent between 2010 and 2016.
- Bills paid via ACH increased by 10 percent, and bills paid with credit card doubled to 15 percent.
- Almost three quarters (72 percent) of online bill payments are made on billers’ websites, up 18 percent since 2010.
Part of delivering a customer experience that’s in line with expectations is understanding how customer behavior and preferences are changing. In our example of the finance director, if she implements a modern and automated AR process for her customers, she could probably expect a few results:
- A customer experience that is more aligned with customer payment trends and preferences;
- Faster payment due to a streamlined process; and,
- Less bad debt, by simply making it easier to pay.
The other meta result here is that that the finance director, in addition to likely improving business performance, is making an indelible mark on her company. She’s an agent of positive change, which benefits not only the company, but her own career. While this example focuses on one particular role and function, the same lessons and opportunities apply to other roles and functions throughout business.
While automation can put mind-numbing, repetitive tasks on autopilot, it can help give knowledge worker roles dramatically higher impact and make them even more fulfilling for the individuals who occupy them.