automate work, not people

Standardized work continues to be automated, by software and machines.  The re-wiring of work is essential for every part of our economy. The challenge is to identify what work can be automated and focus people on being more creative, both in dealing with complex problems and in identifying new opportunities. Human creativity is a limitless resource. Too often, it is wasted in our organizational structures.

“The family farm is an example of automation being used to free people to do what they do best. As one farmer said, it’s difficult to hire people who want to milk cows everyday at 4:00 am.

While automation is one of the reasons there’s been so many job losses in manufacturing — taking over repetitive tasks, experts in the field says it’s time to re-think the point of jobs themselves.

Despite automation, the Shantz family says cows still need personal attention. And although some farmers are skeptical of robots are taking over jobs, experts in the field say that with technology forging ahead it’s time to re-think the point of jobs themselves.” —The Current, CBC

What is the point of a job? Farmers are in a position to see their entire work system and make it better. The future is for people to work on the system, not in the system as replaceable cogs in the machine. We can get there if those people in charge start identifying ways to make all work more human and focus on talent development – creativity, curiosity, and empathy – to name a few. In a post-job economy, management is preempting automation.


My recommendation over the past few years has been that every person in an organization, with the help of data and peer feedback, should be able to determine what percentage of their time is spent on routine 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. Management should be constantly looking at ways to automate any standardized work in order to stay ahead of technology, the market, and the competition. While automation is pretty well inevitable, 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 (perpetual beta) will obsolesce 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 all workers in the process, and being transparent about it. Most of all, this change requires companies and managers who really care about people. After all, aren’t people every organization’s most important asset? Well it’s time to walk the corporate talk.

4 Responses to “automate work, not people”

  1. Shaun Browne

    I heard this interview on The Current, as well, Harold. The whole concept of re-thinking routine work and developing new ideas of what work is, will transform how and why we live.

    I sense that, in the current political climate, especially in the West, there’s a strong desire to revert to how things were in the 1950s. The problem is our collective false memory of what life was like then. In my latest blog I used a black and white photograph of a dozen or so employees building electric door bells. I can’t imagine what it was like to rise every morning and go to a job like that.

    Like thinking back to high school days, we are very good about recalling the championship football game, but no so good remembering how numbing calculus was. We are in danger of making the same mistake when we remember what we were able to do with the money we earned from work, but forget what we did to earn the money.

    What we need to do is think more like farmers, by looking at work more holistically, more critically, and making changes where they make sense.

    While it’s great to be part of the creative class, sometimes some work has to be routine. How else would things get done? I agree with your point on looking at technological solutions where it’s possible to automate routine work to robotics, as an example, but retain workers where they can have a more human interaction.

    If we automate the production of doorbells, we need to develop creative solutions, where workers can truly add value in the process of building, testing, packaging, and selling doorbells to the world. The alternative, laying people off, is just as numbing as my Grade 11 Calculus was. It’s a waste of time, energy, and talent.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article, Harold.

    Shaun Browne

  2. Taruna Goel

    Harold, I heard this interview the other day too. A thoughtful piece that made me reflect about the ‘human’ in my humanity and how we all respond so differently to technology. Your post served as a great platform to think about this more deeply. I am especially mindful of your distinction between routine standardized work and non-routine customized work and the shift from labour to talent.

    I have a similar distinction but I it comes from the need to redefine what we call ‘work’.

    To me, rethinking jobs is more about rethinking the definition of work itself. Instead of looking for jobs, should we perhaps focus on where, as humans, we can add most value within a workflow. That’s our real ‘work’. ‘Jobs’ can be done be the machines. Making this fundamental shift from jobs to work means creating more opportunities for us to reskill, rethink and rewire ourselves.

    I am reminded of this quote by architect and systems theorist, R. Buckminster Fuller who said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

    The existing reality is that technology is making some jobs obsolete. We can’t fight technology. The only way forward is to redefine what we call work.


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