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Automation and Process

Blog: Colin Crofts - Business Process Improvement

A recent HBR article tackles Automation and its impact on employment and humanity in “Beyond Automation” by Thomas H Davenport and Julia Kirby.  The premise is the concern you can pick up almost anywhere these days:
Familiar as she is with the upside of computerization, the downside looms large. “How will they compete against AI?” she asked. “How will they compete against a much older and experienced workforce vying for even fewer positions?”
There are two parts to this premise:
  1. The first is that we’ll be competing with AI.
  2. The second is that there will be fewer jobs in the future.
The authors take a different view but let’s start with what the machines have progressively taken away.
The authors’ optimistic take:
What if, rather than asking the traditional question—What tasks currently performed by humans will soon be done more cheaply and rapidly by machines?—we ask a new one: What new feats might people achieve if they had better thinking machines to assist them? Instead of seeing work as a zero-sum game with machines taking an ever greater share, we might see growing possibilities for employment. We could reframe the threat of automation as an opportunity for augmentation.
And this is the view that we have taken at BP3 with respect to BPM and process- which in some cases involves automation. It isn’t all about “moving up the stack” to stuff that machines can’t do, it is also letting machines (software, processes) help you do things you can’t do today.
“Tasks that cannot be substituted by computerization are generally complemented by it,” he [David Autor] wrote. “This point is as fundamental as it is overlooked.”
 The authors recommend five coping mechanisms:
  1. Step up
  2. Step aside
  3. Step in
  4. Step narrowly
  5. Step forward
None really fully embraces the augmentation theme earlier in the book however. It is good to remember there are whole classes of employment that are enabled purely by a computer or machine… Radiologist for example.  Marketing professionals can be dramatically more effective with tools like Twitter and Facebook available.
Augmentation is a good way to think about the kinds of software investments that BP3 builds. We’re not replacing our consultants, but the software we write makes them look smarter, makes them much more efficient, and produces better results for customers.  Which, in turn, allows us to compete for business.  Similarly, customers might benefit from looking at BPM as augmenting the organizational knowledge and processes of their teams.  The laser focus on staff reductions in the 2000’s has really detracted from thinking about improving the effectiveness and quality of the tools people use, we’re seeing a turn again toward caring about more than just headcount and cost – caring about effectiveness and outcomes

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