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Automation vs people: Striking the balance

According to Andrew Chakhoyan, writing for the World Economic Forum, we’re now entering “the post-management era.” One where “the ideas of incremental progress, continuous improvement, automation and process optimisations just don’t cut the mustard anymore; those practices are necessary, but insufficient.”

The assumption here is that:

  • The key management challenge is the difficult-to-manage creative work and workers.
  • All the other work that “requires supervision” i.e., could be managed by traditional techniques is “being outsourced to robots and algorithms.”

So is the future really that black and white? Is it all over for service workers and those who oversee their activities? Or is there always going to be a gap that only people can fill? And if there is, what is its future?

Management thinking

The focus for the ‘post-management’ thinking seems centred on the tech giants or ‘unicorns’ that represent the future (recent events involving customer data privacy not withstanding). These – and smaller firms in the same creative and brainpower-driven fields – are where the key challenges are assumed to be.

Here, it is argued, traditional methods of management are no longer appropriate as firms try to escape the challenges of coping with the increased complexity that comes with growth, while the proportion of star performers reduces.

The key ideas appear to be that:

  • The division of labour between ‘managers’ and ‘doers’ is going away.
  • There is so much uncertainty in the modern business environment that simply ‘making a plan and executing it’ no longer works. Flexibility, adaptability, learning, and experimentation are the new watchwords, enabled by flatter, more flexible management structures.

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The state of automation

Right now, the received wisdom dictates that, wherever possible, tasks will inevitably become automated as AI and robotics become more advanced. The Burger Flipping Robot at CaliBurger restaurant in Pasadena, California is a good example, which is why the management thinking above focuses on the types of work assumed to be left behind. It’s ‘simple economics’ – cheaper and more reliable.

A 2013 study from Oxford University ran with this logic and produced a list of 702 common occupations. Of these, 12 they saw as having a 99% risk of being automated entirely in the near future, while 22 roles had a 98% chance, and so on.

It’s no doubt inevitable that many routine tasks will become redundant. But there will be significant areas where the picture will be more nuanced. The pendulum will continue to swing towards automation but people aren’t going to leave the workforce completely in areas where:

  • consumers of services still look for a human touch.
  • people can do things better or more easily than a machine.

In functions such as food service, customer service and facilities, people are going to be around for a while yet doing valuable jobs that a simpler analysis of the future might dismiss.

So, the questions that arise are:

  • What can technology do to help rather than replace these workers?
  • How can some of the ideas of new management styles be applied to these more structured roles?

The technology-enabled service worker

Tomorrow’s service workers need smart tools that prompt them with the information they need to get through the routine tasks they are working on as quickly as possible, to take and record action and escalate problems.

This should be on the basis of context – who they are, where they are, what’s happening in the business, and what time it is. Businesses that rely on a pen and paper or spreadsheets are a million miles from doing this. Those that want to meet this challenge will need a new kind of tool that orders, presents and analyses work from multiple sources, including automated ‘co-workers.’

This is our vision for Checkit’s Real-Time Operations Management, deploying business-driven checklists that support, guide and prompt workers so they can get on with serving customers or patients as well as possible.

Enabling innovation

Technology-enabled services organisations can use software platforms such as Checkit to evolve their management to a new level of automation, mirroring, where appropriate, the emerging thinking within knowledge work.

Technology-powered real-time feedback and rapid change enable experimentation and adaptation at scale, while smart tools allow managers to balance the necessary structure and disciplines needed to manage risk and compliance, while freeing up time for workers to develop what they are being employed for – the human face of service.

Contact us today and find out how.

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Checkit provides Real-Time Operations Management for businesses that need to ensure safe, reliable and efficient performance.

For front line staff, Checkit automates, guides and enforces their activities, improving efficiency and consistency. For supervisors it automatically allocates and schedules work, making exceptions and issues easy to handle. For managers it creates broad control and consistency, providing continual insights across the business.

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