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Adapt or Die: Enabling A Changing World of Work

Adapt or Die: Enabling A Changing World of Work

New technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic process automation (RPA) will provide opportunities for organizations to automate routine tasks and focus on more interesting and value-added work. These new technologies, though, change the nature of work itself. They require leaders to prepare their organizations for change and to embrace new opportunities in the digital age.

The Truth about Automation

It is predicted that 47% of all jobs currently held by Americans could be computerized within the next 20 years. [1] This is the kind of headline that grabs attention but it also creates a good deal of anxiety for workers who feel most threatened by the automation of knowledge work. This is especially true around advances in AI, which have made it possible for computers to “learn” like humans.

Traditional “white-collar” jobs, previously thought to be immune from automation because of the high levels of education and expertise required to perform duties, are now within the scope of AI. Recent advances have conquered domains of information processing that were beyond the reach of previous computational science.

AI is a broad, overarching category that includes both old and newer technologies. More specifically, AI tools enable applications to “learn” without requiring coding or programming.

Some of the newer AI applications include advances in areas such as Machine Learning, Mobile Robotics, Data Mining, Machine Vision, Computational Statistics and so forth. They are distinguished from more traditionally programmed applications because they can mimic the way humans think.

The Robot in the Next Office

These AI applications may not be the first new technologies to affect your workplace. That first new form of technology is more likely to be a robot in the form of “robotic process automation,” or “RPA” for short. This robot is not going to be a humanoid with arms and legs taking up residence in the cubicle next to you. It is actually a piece of software that mimics the actions of a human worker completing repeatable, routine data-processing tasks.

Robotic Process Automation

RPA is technically not AI because most RPA applications do not have a “learning capability.”  RPA is a foundational technology upon which any future AI initiatives should be built.  RPA is considered the first step on the continuum toward intelligent automation, leading to true AI.

The RPA software can execute the tasks that need to be performed by a human to enable enterprise resource planning (ERP) as well as many other information management systems designed to complete a business process.

RPA is different from other data exchange mechanisms in that it is able to operate on the user interface (UI) level rather than on the deeper levels within the database architecture. The software robot operates on the UI in the same way that a human would. Beause this technology can operate between different systems on the UI level rather than the deeper data exchange levels, it is a significant departure from traditional forms of information data exchange.

Meet the New “Digital Workforce”

What’s more, these robotic pieces of software sit on top of existing applications and, thus, do not interfere with the current operation of any of the existing information technology systems. The robots emulate human actions and are sometimes characterized as “swivel chair” roles; that is, they mimic the actions of a human worker going back and forth between different systems, spreadsheets, emails and other pieces of structured and non-structured data.

There is a lot of middle-skilled knowledge work currently performed by professional knowledge workers involving these swivel chair–type tasks that are now ripe for automation. Since these software applications work with existing technology and infrastructure, these agents become a “digital workforce” to complete transactions and processes that previously required human involvement.

Knowledge in the Hands of a Computer

Automation at work

In many ways, these human roles compensated for the lack of integration between many organizations’ current systems. Professionals have made up for the current process limitations inherent in many currently installed ERP applications. Robots can perform work that humans are performing due to poor process design or programming problems that were not addressed during the original implementation process and not subsequently resolved by system upgrades or changes.

These initial RPA implementation projects can take months instead of years, and (depending on the level of complexity involved) the return on these investments often occurs within a year. A part of many RPA implementation projects is the setup of an Automation Center of Excellence (COE) that enables end users to develop the subsequent robotic processes through the Visio-like programming design interface.

The Time to Adapt Is Now

All organizations looking to thrive or merely survive through the digitizing of their industry will need to develop a robust digital change enablement strategy.

This will become as important as your business strategy is today. The change impacts of these new automation technologies will create change management challenges unseen before in professional ranks in both corporate support and business operational functions.

Unlike previous change management initiatives that focused on changes to enterprise applications or organizational structures, these new automation technologies are directly targeting the work that humans currently do. Therefore, the level of professional, organizational and personal upheaval will be unprecedented. Also, the attendant level of fear and resistance (and even potential sabotage) to these automation initiatives will be disruptive as well as distracting.

How to Adapt to a Changing World of Work

Organizations must implement change-enabling strategies and programs to make their organizational structures and workers more nimble, flexible and adaptable to this digital future. These are far more than technology implementations; they are cultural transformations and complete business transitions to a whole new world of work. Here are three critical steps that you can take now:

  1. Create a Digital Futures Council—This should be a cross-functional team of interested change champions motivated to create a competitive advantage for your organization—before other companies beat you to it. Ideally, all of your employees need to better understand the implications of new technologies on their customers, their business processes and their departments as well as on themselves. While some functions and jobs will be affected more than others, few areas are likely to escape the change impacts that these technology innovations will bring.
  2. Conduct a Jobs Automation Opportunity & Risk Assessment—Evaluate all jobs for automation potential against these three R’s:
    • Rules-Based—To what extent does this job follow an established written protocol and/or explicit set of regulations that either requires (or strives for) a consistent level of performance?
    • Repetitive—What is the cycle-time before the series of tasks and activities starts over and repeats? How many of these cycles occur in the course of different time frames (hour/day/week/month/quarter/year)?
    • Recognizable Pattern—Are there natural patterns to the decision-making processes that can be identified, decoded, articulated and broken down into step-by-step tasks, activities and decision-making points?
  3. Document Your Work Processes—This is good business practice, yet too often, the more urgent priorities in organizations take precedence over the tedious work of documenting work processes. Those step-by-step instructions, broken down into the level of discrete tasks and activities and then included with process maps, are a critical input to the automation evaluation, prioritization and business case development process. Your documented work processes will help you to more quickly identify your return on investment of the automation, as well as prioritize those processes for your organization.


New AI technologies are going to facilitate the automation of knowledge work that was previously thought to be beyond the reach of computer technologies. These new automation technologies will be focusing on professional “white-collar” work that was previously thought immune to automation that has long affected manufacturing “blue-collar” work. The change impacts of these new automation technologies will be profound. Business leaders have to help both their organizations and their individual workers to be prepared both professionally and personally for these changes that are being brought about by the rapid transition to digital-based business models. Organizations that underestimate the change management implications of what lies just ahead may find themselves in a Darwinian Galapagos Island where the adage “Adapt or Die” becomes very real.

[1] Frey, Carl Benedikt and Osborne, Michael A., “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to computerization?” Oxford University, September 17, 2013.

John Gillen

John J. Gillen is a human capital management consultant, an experienced HR professional and a work futurist. He has more than 20 years of experience as an internal corporate HR practitioner. He was most recently a Human Capital management consultant for a Big 4 professional services firm.

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