Beware Autopilot: What are the implications of business turning to automation?

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Posting date: 01 May 2020

At the beginning of the lockdown a report appeared in The Guardian with the headline, “Bosses speed up automation as virus keeps workers home”. The article centred around a report from EY claiming livelihoods were at risk as 41% of employers prepare for life after the crisis. But why is automation now being seen as the silver bullet, and at what cost financially, culturally and across society?

Last week 12,000 people learned that they are losing their jobs at British Airways, and Ryanair appears set to follow with massive cuts. Whilst aviation is particularly hit, this crisis is hurting countless households with unemployment in a number of countries hitting record highs. The cost to families, as well as business, is huge. It feels like life ‘after’ the crisis will more closely resemble the new norm, rather than a return to what we all took for granted.

I have spoken to a number of businesses in recent weeks who tell me they won’t be returning to their office; even those that do won’t return wholesale, with organisations considering who really needs to be in a physical office and why? Businesses who previously had never considered home working (and were resistant to it) are now wondering why they’d ever go back, and the longer lockdown continues the more that thinking will take root.

What this has revealed is that many organisations simply weren’t prepared; their business continuity planning failed, and automation would appear to be the way to protect their business moving forward. In this context, automation makes absolute sense. If business continuity is threatened you can’t plan effectively, and businesses hate uncertainty.

The problem is companies were making a pigs-ear of automation pre-pandemic, so why is it going to be a success now? Let’s consider the reasons automation typically fails.

Cost. It costs a lot of money to build an enterprise-scale data machine. Right now, businesses are cutting and furloughing because we’re headed (most probably) into a deep recession. The impact of Covid-19 hasn’t really hit the B2B sector. Q1 results will have held up, Q2 will flatline. Q3 will bite hard as costs are added back into the business and the government stops footing the bill. At that point money is going to be tight and automation (whilst attractive) might be bumped down the list of immediate concerns as demands are made on a dwindling pot of cash, which brings us to point two.

Sponsorship. It is going to take a very strong, united boardroom to realise the benefits of an automation project. Are your marketing, talent, people, and technology leaders going to remain committed to the project when they need money elsewhere? It normally takes a Chief Data Officer (or the equivalent post) to have the ear of a steadfast CEO to see this sort of transformation through.

Time. It takes time, on average between 18 months to 2 years, to build a data machine in an enterprise environment. For a start, are organisations sitting on structured data? Has home working and a fragmented estate made that data harder to manage? I would imagine it has.

These three areas alone presented a huge challenge to businesses prior to the pandemic, nevermind now. For a lot of businesses simply switching to remote working was a challenge, it took time to understand how to use the wide array of communications tools such as Teams and Zoom.

Whereas automation is big and exciting, you need to make sure your business communicates properly and you capture the ideas of all of your employees. That may be a much bigger threat to the long-term health of the business if not addressed properly. It isn’t enough to simply hold a daily stand-up on a conference call; organisations must consider very carefully how to ensure they are truly inclusive and the new norm doesn’t lead to a narrowing of ideas.

So, what are the positives regarding automation? I recently spoke to Riham Satti, founder of MeVitae, TedX speaker, and heavily involved in the application of machine learning to business environments. She highlighted that large organisations simply aren’t that adaptable and the use of automation should be limited, even if it can now be done more quickly than previously envisaged.

“What you don’t want to do is end up executing all these steps and measures, and realising you’ve done it wrong. The fact that the lockdown enables business to do this fast, is a positive thing. This is where business can use the lean approach, or an MVP, and set things in motion and take baby-steps. It doesn’t have to go from zero to one hundred.”

More importantly, she highlighted the need for businesses to act with responsibility and accountability. This shouldn’t be simply about protecting margins and profits, but reskilling staff and augmenting corporations rather than wholesale automating them.

“It’s the perfect time to automate… but that doesn’t mean laying off jobs and people. There are roles that require human interaction.” 

That subtle difference between whether the ‘A’ stands for automation or augmentation could have long lasting implications for our society and economy. The 80s saw a rapid deindustrialisation of modern western democracies. The cultural impact of that period has been felt in countless elections over the past five years, disenfranchised communities have made their voice heard. If 41% of businesses are preparing for life after the pandemic, we need to hope they do so with heart.