The United States is currently enjoying record low unemployment across multiple sectors, even as the debate continues on how much automation will replace human workers in certain jobs. While it is true that technology has rendered some human roles obsolete, that will never be the case for the human workforce as a whole. History has repeatedly demonstrated that as technology and automation increase efficiencies, companies create differentiated value by investing in new human roles that emphasize qualities that cannot be automated away — empathy, critical thinking and creative problem solving.

Case in point: The office secretary. The job of secretary once revolved around typing and filing business documents in an office setting (indeed, the term comes from the same Latin word as “secret”). However, the role has undergone enormous change in the past few decades due to technological disruption — from electronic typewriters, to computers, to sector-specific digital applications. Fast forward to today and there are not many self-identified “secretaries” around, but there are multi-faceted administrative assistants who are responsible for all manner of office tasks, from acting as visitor concierge, to handling social media, to planning executive travel, to managing office resources.

New Technology, New Human Roles

“Every time a major new technology showed up, there were always predictions that this would spell the end of secretaries,” said International Association of Administrative Professionals spokesman Ray Weiksaw as quoted in an article for The Receptionist. “You saw that with the development of electric typewriters, the personal computer, and the internet, but every time technology gets more efficient, the amount of business increases. You continue to need people who can use those tools.”

Similarly, in the wake of the mass adoption of ATMs, there was actually an increase in the number of banks, as individual branches became cheaper to run through technology and there was a subsequent ramp-up in the total number of physical branch locations. However, the more interesting story is how the role of bank teller has evolved to where they are now viewed as sales associates and customer concierges (and performing these more complex tasks often means higher salaries as well).

Creating Business Value

Just as technology has resulted in higher-value roles for secretaries and bank tellers, companies have discovered other ways to use human capital to create business value while pursuing a strategy that includes automation and cognitive solutions.

Today, with digital colleagues like Amelia, who automates both transactional and cognitive tasks at scale, there is renewed anxiety about the replacement of humans. Amelia is designed to take over high-volume business tasks that previously required human intervention and make companies more efficient (and you can read many examples of Amelia’s abilities here.)

However, if history is any indicator, the marketplace will not just settle for savings on overhead as a justification for deploying automation and cognitive solutions. Rather, they will reinvest those savings into new human roles, ones focused on providing personalized service and support, which emphasize human qualities that cannot be eliminated by machines. In fact, these solutions can bring out the very best in the human workforce.

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