preempting automation

There is a lot of talk in the mainstream media about the increasing automation of work and jobs. I have discussed automation and outsourcing here for several years and it’s fairly obvious that standardized work will keep getting automated, by software or robots. Addressing this technology-driven shift should be a high priority for everyone, from unions, to governments, and human resource professionals. As we move into a post-job economy, society needs to restructure how work gets done and how it is compensated. While this is a macro issue, there are some things that can be done within the enterprise right now. Companies that implement these changes could be in a much better position as the creative economy rises to dominate agricultural, manufacturing, and information economies.

I have written that the future of management is talent development, but what does this mean on a day to day basis? One small change, that could have a major impact, would be to look at everyone’s work from the perspective of standardized versus customized work. Every person in the company, with the help of some data and peer feedback, should be able to determine what percentage of their time is spent on standardized work. If the percentage is over a certain threshold, say 50%, then it becomes a management task to change that person’s job and add more customized work. The company should be constantly looking at ways to automate any standardized work, in order to stay ahead of technology, the market, and the competition. Automation is pretty well inevitable but it does not have to decimate the workforce.

Looking at the overall company balance between standardized and customized work should be an indicator of its potential to succeed. By visualizing the Labour/Talent split, people in the company can take action and make plans before the inevitable shift. This of course means that jobs and roles have to become more flexible and open to change. But this is a post-job economy we are moving toward. We cannot stay tied to the concept of the job as the primary way to work.

Building ways to constantly change roles will be one way to get rid of the standardized job, which has no place in a creative economy. This one small change could have a major impact on any organization. It just requires a slightly new way of looking at work, collecting good data, engaging workers in the process, and being transparent about it all. Most of all, it requires companies and managers who really care about talent development.

The reality that treating workers like Talent, not replaceable and low cost Labour, can actually increase revenue is starting to make an impact, even where it is not quite so obvious – the retail sector. Getting staff to focus on customized work, or dealing with each unique customer need, pays dividends in the long term.

“A better-paid, better-trained worker, she argues, will be more eager to help customers; they’ll also be more eager to help their store sell to them. The success of Costco, Trader Joe’s, QuikTrip and Mercadona, Spain’s biggest supermarket chain, indicate, she argues, that well-paid, knowledgeable workers are not an indulgence often found in luxury boutiques with their high markups. At each of the aforementioned companies, workers are paid more than at their competitors; they are also amply staffed per shift. More employees can ask customers questions about what they want to see more of and what they don’t like, and then they are empowered to change displays or order different stock to appeal to local tastes.” —NYT: Thinking Outside the (Big) Box

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