The Front Lines of Business: Why It’s Dangerous to Overestimate the Role of Automation

“In the future, robots will be doing our jobs for us” is one of the most common sentences we hear from futurists, business people and technology leaders. Below Richard Acreman, Partner at WM Reply, discusses the overvalue of automated processes and the future of ‘robots’ on the front lines of business. There are variations on the […]

“In the future, robots will be doing our jobs for us” is one of the most common sentences we hear from futurists, business people and technology leaders. Below Richard Acreman, Partner at WM Reply, discusses the overvalue of automated processes and the future of ‘robots’ on the front lines of business.

There are variations on the theme depending on your perspective, like “robots are stealing our jobs” or, at the other end of the spectrum, “robots will create a revolution in creative freedom.” But while all of these predictions will probably have a strong element of truth to them over the long term, they’re also the source of a dangerous misconception in the here and now: that businesses don’t need to worry so much about talent.

Broadly speaking, the exact opposite is true, but if it’s a misconception you share, you have some prestigious company. A major piece of opinion research recently revealed the difference between the value of human capital vs. physical capital to the economy now and in the future. As part the study, two thirds of CEOs and top leaders at global firms revealed that they believed technology would create greater value for their organisations than their workforces would. Almost half believed that automation, AI and robotics would make their workforce “largely irrelevant” in the near future.

In fact, the economic modelling that accompanied the research showed that human capital would be worth more than twice as much. The key distinction is having the right skills and the right people, who are valuable both in their own right, and as the people who are going to enable the technology to enhance their organisations’ value. That means engaging with, supporting and learning from the best workers to ensure that their knowledge and expertise remains within the business and can continue to unlock the business’s potential as the workplace changes.

A key battleground

Unsurprisingly, the first place that this issue is flaring up is on the front lines of business – among the customer facing or service delivering staff that form the grass roots of most organisations. It’s this audience who are often the most threatened by automation and it’s also this audience who are traditionally most neglected by their companies.

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As the above study shows, it’s all too easy for businesses who have never been particularly strong on engaging their front line workers to take technology as an excuse for inaction or to make the situation even worse, but overestimating the scale of the change or the speed of the transition means that those with this attitude will likely have years to regret their miscalculation before anything close to the future they’d imagined comes to pass.

Why front line workers continue to be so important

Looking at it from both sides helps to clarify how misleading it can be to think that technology is going to make staff less relevant.

If we assume that technologies that are good enough to fully replace staff are here already, or very close, then we might also make the assessment that the best staff will be needed to help inform the processes and approaches of that technology, look after it, and stand in for it when it goes wrong. Not to mention the cases where it doesn’t have the answer, or is dealing with a customer who insists on human interaction.

If we assume that the technology isn’t here yet, but is coming, then this group will remain essential to the work, but exist in a heightened state of anxiety about their future with automation seemingly in hot pursuit of them. They will therefore need not just a decent level of support and attention from the business (as should be standard), but also a certain amount or additional reassurance, the absence of which might well be seen as their death knell.

People and technology in perfect harmony

What then is the short-term answer? And how can companies ensure that they are not only engaging with, but also getting the most out of their front line workers, so that the technology will have to work even harder to offer a quantifiable advantage?

That’s probably something that’s best explained with some specifics. Bea Tartsanyi, enterprise innovation strategist at Sideways 6, talking at a recent event focused around Microsoft’s Yammer, pointed out that the value of grassroots innovation to a business is immense. With the analytics that her team is developing, they’re starting to get a handle on just how important that is. She’s proving that using tools like Yammer to access the knowledge and learnings of those on the front lines – those who ordinarily might not have much of a voice internally – is not only one of the most effective, but also cost efficient ways of driving innovation.

Bea also pointed out that companies are always looking at ways to bring the voice of the customer firmly into the business. To learn from the customer’s needs and to understand the best practice approaches to meeting them. What better way to do that than to directly connect front line workers to the centralised organisation through the engaging, non-hierarchical social tools like Yammer.

It works both ways: Front line workers can easily flag some of the everyday challenges they face for senior managers to tackle, while those at the top can offer up the challenges they face. Whether those challenges come from a loyalty, cost or another perspective entirely, allowing those at the coalface to share their experience of overcoming those challenges on an individual case basis will feed into an organisation-wide benefit.

Ultimately, automation will have an important role to play, but we’re a long way from that role superseding the role of front line workers. Giving those on the ground the tools to excel at their own jobs while also feeding into the wider strategy is an immediate answer to many of the challenges that companies face. Given how much front line workers – properly enabled – can contribute, ignoring the people-based solutions to those challenges in favour of the vague idea that up and coming technologies will fill in the gap is like saying you won’t buy an umbrella because at some point in the future it might not be raining.

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