Authored by Professor James Woudhuysen, Forecaster
Professor James Woudhuysen returns to the panel this week to talk about all things automation. While the benefits of automating time-consuming tasks might seem obvious, few UK small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are making the most of the technologies that are now within their reach.
In this guest post, James looks at why the uptake of automation has been slow so far, and gives tips on where to start.
The automation of enterprise IT
Automation is nothing new. It was a key part of the first three industrial revolutions, and is central to the disruption by IT that, if we are to believe what we read, is sweeping across almost all sectors of the economy today.
In 2018, the capture and use of data is a key source of competitive advantage for companies, in all sectors and geographies. Moreover, the capture of data, its transmission, its analysis and the actions following that analysis together form four tasks that, while always supervised by humans, are themselves being automated.
For SMEs, these facts are important. Because of the difficulty they have in reaching economies of scale, SMEs in Britain encounter productivity problems – problems that have afflicted most major Western economies, and certainly the UK’s, since 2008. Of course, some surveys suggest that British SMEs don’t think that productivity is much of a problem for them. But even if SMEs really thought this way, which we doubt, that would only underline the importance of automating SMEs, and of automating more of their IT.
Why some SMEs neglect automation – barriers to discuss
In recent months, it has become an unquestioned dogma that low wages in Britain explain the country’s failure to automate. While that logic is part of a sensible explanation, we need to realise that the relative availability of cheap labour forms just one of quite a few barriers to automating UK PLC.
The questions that a typical SME needs to ask itself about any automation project include the following:
Starting a high-level, pragmatic debate
Both among staff and with customers, it’s never too early to start a lively dialogue on what processes can and should be automated, and how to go about this.
One way to start is to appoint a young person in the company to share the latest news or reports on breakthroughs in automation each month, and to present their thoughts on where these breakthroughs might apply to the business at-hand. Importantly, ‘automation’, here as elsewhere, goes a lot further than the automation of enterprise IT. It covers things like enterprise’s use of energy and transport, for example.
The aim of topical monthly workshops on automation is for staff to get a sense of the value it could bring to bear, and the urgency with which it needs to be applied.
Secondly, carry the debate on automation to your customers. Ask what their pain points are and what would benefit them. If customers don’t notice a positive difference after automation, it’s worth asking whether the whole exercise was worth it.
Last, think critically about which aspects of the business are automatable. Computers, algorithms and robots can do things that humans can’t. At the same time, they are also completely incapable of the high-level, social judgments – moral, aesthetic, political and personal – that are rather important to modern businesses. IT can detect and calculate what humans cannot, but IT-based robots still cannot easily straighten a pile of magazines or stack a retailer’s shelves.
Despite the enduring influence of the assembly line on our imagination, automation is rarely just about replacing people with robots around repetitive manual tasks. In a lot of cases, the value of automation lies in solving problems previously thought so complex, the business never had anyone working on them.
Robots as our liberators, not our replacements
In all aspects of automation, it’s the human factor that is the most vital, and often the most neglected.
Forget that stuff about robots taking our jobs. Humans have barely got round to investing in robots, and it’s humans who will decide the balance between Machine and Operator and whether the Operator’s job is changed or lost.
We’re a long way from the “millions of full-time jobs replaced by robots” refrain that’s made by alarmist commentators. In this century, direct job replacement by automation has already proved more the exception than the rule. Where automation really scores is in discovering new opportunities from data, and in the abolition of those routines that humans don’t need to go on doing.
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