Automation and Process

  • August 4, 2015
  • Scott

Linkedin teamA 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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  • “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.”

    Agreed, but as AI becomes “more real” it’s likely that being a knowledge worker will be increasingly challenging. We puny humans will only be called in to deal with the problems that stump the AI. Very poor analogy, but imagine being called in to answer a Jeopardy question that stumped Watson, or to figure out why Watson’s answer was wrong.

    It’s almost as if in some fields we’ll be augmenting the AI, rather than the other way around. Just thinking about the tooling we’ll need to pull that off gives me goose bumps 😉

    • You have a lot more faith in AI than I do 🙂 It’s interesting, but let’s not kid ourselves that it is thinking for itself. When spreadsheets came along, did life get more challenging for the knowledge worker that used to do what the spreadsheets do? sure, but we also invented whole knew kinds of work that leveraged the spreadsheet. We solved problems we never thought about solving before.

      So far, despite all the “AI” progress, that’s still the case. Employment keeps increasing, new jobs keep materializing, old jobs keep getting disrupted. However, I think more broadly, if you say, sometimes we’re augmenting the “automation” rather than “AI”, then I think we’re in agreement. Automation may augment us or we may augment automation but those are just varying degrees between two poles. This already happens in driving big equipment and manually controlled robotics, or human-programmed robotics (is the robot augmenting us, or are we augmenting it with our code? 🙂