As technologies become increasingly capable of taking on a wide variety of repeatable tasks, many workers may find themselves increasingly nervous about their place in the workforce. Anxieties about technology in the workplace are nothing new — in fact, they go back centuries. The good news is that the fear of humans being replaced en masse by machines has never been borne out by reality. Rather, history has repeatedly shown that as machines transform whole industries, they also create new opportunities for human workers.
Indeed, the US is one of the most developed economies, and therefore one of the most automated, but it also currently has record-low unemployment. What’s more, there is an additional and far more important aspect to the automation story than the relatively low impact on the quantity of jobs —there’s the positive impact on the quality of jobs. When technology takes on repeatable, rote tasks, human workers are free to use their creative powers in ways that are much more fulfilling personally and professionally.
History Shows Automation Benefits
When it comes to automation, there is an oft-stated factoid about how the number of human bank tellers actually increased as ATMs became more ubiquitous in the 1990s. ATMs made bank operations more affordable, which resulted in a proliferation of bank branches — so even though there were fewer tellers at each branch, there was a net gain in the number of human tellers overall. Yet, that’s arguably not the most interesting part of the ATM story. Not only were there more tellers in the wake of automation, but the role changed in a fundamental way, and for the better.
The most successful banks will be the ones that form hybrid workforces, with digital colleagues taking on high-volume repetitious work, and human employees using their skills to take on higher-value customer needs.
As ATMs took on high-volume financial management tasks (e.g., dispensing cash, assisting customers with depositing checks, or account inquiries), tellers took on more complex customer needs that required empathy and soft skills. As economist James Benson notes:
“And so, what’s happened is that cash-handling has obviously become less important for tellers. But their ability to market and their interpersonal skills in terms of dealing with bank clients has become more important. So the transition– what the ATM machine did was effectively change the job of the bank teller into one where they are more of a marketing person.”
Tellers previously were responsible for highly regimented tasks, however now banks are asking them to take on additional responsibilities (and paying them more). The tellers who are most successful in these roles — and the most valuable to their employers — are going to be the ones with the best creative problem solving and interpersonal skills. Those are the kind of uniquely human skills that can’t be automated away.
Digital Colleagues Step In
Much has been written about the power of automation to optimize business processes and give companies the flexibility to reduce overhead costs. Nearly as much has been written about how automation can benefit consumers through on-demand services. However, the focus is starting to turn to how automation, as well as cognitive technologies, will deliver more fulfilling overall experiences for employees and consumers. This focus will accelerate with the expanded role of digital colleagues such as Amelia who use cognitive AI to automate human-like engagements.
To continue the banking example, Amelia can assist customers with basic and more complex banking transactions, interacting in plain language from any device. She can even automate prolonged information gathering processes like initiating a mortgage application process. However, that doesn’t mean that human bankers or mortgage processors will suddenly become obsolete.
Indeed, humans’ roles in sustaining a successful bank by utilizing their own individual skills become even more critical. The most successful banks will be the ones that form hybrid workforces, with digital colleagues taking on high-volume repetitious work, and human employees using their skills to take on higher-value customer needs. The companies that offer customers the right amount of both, where the power of human creativity is allowed to shine and thrive, will have a substantial competitive edge.