Think an IT Job is Safe From Automation? Think Again

4 min read
  • Information Technology
  • Process Automation

With automation taking over components of many jobs (even writers…), you may feel that, as a knowledge worker, you’re safe. But you’d be wrong.

“There are some knowledge-work jobs that will simply succumb to the rise of the robots,” write Julia Kirby and Thomas H. Davenport in Harvard Business Review. “They are just too thoroughly composed of work that can be codified into standard steps and of decisions based on cleanly formatted data.”

What sort of job is particularly ripe for being taken over? Compliance. “Compliance professionals work in every kind of business – from health care companies challenged by legislation to food companies under a regulator’s watchful eye to airlines obliged to track anti-terrorism data,” Kirby and Davenport write. “Job growth in the compliance category has far outpaced most fields in the past decade – but virtually all of its recordkeeping and communication is crying out for automation.”

It’s not just compliance that’s vulnerable to this, but compliance is a classic example of that kind of job. Other examples include electronic discovery, recruiting, and venture capital investing, according to Deloitte. “Compliance is ripe for automation because it is both rule-based and data-intensive,” Kirby and Davenport write. “The more rules there are to follow, the more employee behavior there is to monitor, the more customer and employee transactions there are generating data—the more you need automated software to monitor compliance.”

That’s great news if you manage a compliance department and are looking for ways to cut costs. It’s not that great if you happen to be a compliance specialist.

That said, there are likely aspects of any job that could be automated, write Michael Chui, James Manyika, and Mehdi Miremadi in McKinsey Quarterly. “Very few occupations will be automated in their entirety in the near or medium term,” they write. “Rather, certain activities are more likely to be automated, requiring entire business processes to be transformed, and jobs performed by people to be redefined, much like the bank teller’s job was redefined with the advent of ATMs.”

As many as 45 percent of such activities—amounting to $2 trillion in wages–could go away, they write. While fewer than 5 percent of occupations can be entirely automated using current technology, about 60 percent of occupations could have 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated, they write.

But there’s a silver lining, Kirby and Davenport write: Automation will allow you to eliminate all the really boring parts of your job in favor of doing things that are more exciting. “Artificial intelligence, by doing the sterile work of compliance, might support more entrepreneurial innovation without any compromise of the public interest,” they write. “Employers, we insist, should implement cognitive computing solutions not so that they can make do with fewer people, but to enable their people to take on bigger challenges and have greater impact than they did before.”

Automating the routine cases also gives staff more time to focus on the non-routine ones, Chui, Manyika and Miremadi  explain. “Mortgage-loan officers, for instance, will spend much less time inspecting and processing rote paperwork and more time reviewing exceptions, which will allow them to process more loans and spend more time advising clients,” they write. “Similarly, in a world where the diagnosis of many health issues could be effectively automated, an emergency room could combine triage and diagnosis and leave doctors to focus on the most acute or unusual cases.” Think House.

In fact, while people tend to think of low-wage jobs as being more likely to be automated while high-wage jobs won’t be, it’s actually the reverse, Chui, Manyika and Miremadi  write, because so many of those low-wage jobs have to do with taking care of people, not data.

“Activities consuming more than 20 percent of a CEO’s working time could be automated using current technologies. These include analyzing reports and data to inform operational decisions, preparing staff assignments, and reviewing status reports,” Chui, Manyika and Miremadi write. (Other estimates range even higher.) “Conversely, there are many lower-wage occupations such as home health aides, landscapers, and maintenance workers, where only a very small percentage of activities could be automated with technology available today.”

Instead of thinking in terms of automation, people should be thinking in terms of augmentation, and using automation as a tool to springboard human creativity, Davenport and Kirby write in a different Harvard Business Review article. “What new feats might people achieve if they had better thinking machines to assist them?” they write. “Instead of seeing work as a zero-sum game with machines taking an ever greater share, we might see growing possibilities for employment. There will always be jobs for people who are capable of more big-picture thinking and a higher level of abstraction than computers are.”

Ultimately, the benefits of such automation could be huge to business—and to individuals and companies who demonstrate that they can thrive in such an environment. “The benefits (ranging from increased output to higher quality and improved reliability, as well as the potential to perform some tasks at superhuman levels) typically are between three and ten times the cost,” Chui, Manyika and Miremadi  write. “The magnitude of those benefits suggests that the ability to staff, manage, and lead increasingly automated organizations will become an important competitive differentiator.”

IDC Report Top 5 trends in ECM

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