Will Automation Kill Your Job, or Make You Better at It?

July 12, 2016

With so much news related to matters of genuine weight and import recently, you can be forgiven if you missed one of the latest (and fastest) examples of an emerging technology being adapted for unintended purposes: within days of Pokemon Go hitting the App Store, it was already being used by thieves to attract potential victims to quiet locations where they could be relieved of their possessions at gunpoint.

A trivial change leading to real (and, in this case, frightening) consequences in real-world settings is a theme that can be found with almost any technological shift—from the invention of the printing press to the advent of the Internet of Things, we've been finding new ways to do the things we need more efficiently for centuries. In the process, we've been opening up new opportunities and killing off entire professions along the way.

While there has been no shortage of dire prediction about the extent to which technology is going to reduce the need for employees, a slew of recent research suggests that the future of the working world may not be as robot-oriented as we might fear. One recent book, covered by my colleague, Derek Loosvelt, recently, noted that "computers don't tend to replace whole jobs; they replace specific tasks."

Adding to that is a recent report by McKinsey & Co., which finds that "while automation will eliminate very few occupations entirely in the next decade, it will affect portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the type of work they entail."

While the whole report is worth reading—indeed, if you're interested at all in management and/or how technology will impact business for the foreseeable future, it's probably required reading—the following video from one of the report's lead authors, McKinsey's Michael Chui provides a decent overview of some of the key findings.

 

The key insight, from a career perspective: the research found that, while fewer than 5% of jobs can be fully automated by adapting current technologies, fully 45% of individual activities across all jobs could be automated.

But there's no reason to panic: as Chui points out in the video, "this doesn't mean that 45% of jobs right now can be completely automated. Rather, almost every job has a significant percentage of its activities that can be automated. One of our findings that people found quite intriguing is: something like a quarter to a third of a CEO's time is taken by activities that can be automated."

Not surprisingly, Chui also notes that that's something most CEO's would be keen to change: wouldn't most of us be happier if a machine or computer program could take care of our mundane tasks, and leave us free to focus on higher-value—and more creative—work?

If you're viewing job automation from the perspective of your individual career, that concept is really what's at stake: you should be trying to figure out how to harness technological developments to make yourself more effective and productive. As Chui says in the video:

"Roughly 5% of the activities that we pay people to do require a median level of human creativity, and so I think the glass half full is to think […] couldn't we have people spend more time doing things such as exhibiting creativity, sensing human emotion—things that are very unique to the human abilities."

Figuring that out, and staying on top of it throughout your career, will be the key to maintaining a necessary and marketable skill set, regardless of what developments may come along next.

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by Phil Stott

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