Automation has come to be associated with the concept of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in recent times. A consistent narrative is emerging which implies that its continued uptake will adversely affect the employability of thousands of workers, both in the short and long term.
But this needn’t be the case. In fact, there is growing recognition that we must act to ensure automation is mutually beneficial, protects human employment, and ensures the consistent distribution of labor between humans and machines.
In this context, we’re witnessing the rise of so-called ‘sustainable automation’, which we’re told is a strategy for the continued adoption of technology, and one that is based on a more holistic evaluation of the broader impact of automation both on business and society.
But what does it really entail?
Setting out a definition for sustainable automation
Put simply, sustainable automation is a unique convergence between technology strategy and human capital strategy, which at its heart aims to ensure responsible collaboration between humans and machines in the future of work.
It serves as a framework for businesses and governments to proactively assess the projected impact of expected advances in technology on economies, industries, companies, and individuals.
It also provides the means for workers in at-risk positions to develop in-demand skills, and transition into roles that require these skills on a consistent basis as the demands of work continually change.
This framework then informs a business model in which employees are empowered with talent mobility, and work is designed with human-machine collaboration at its core.
In doing so sustainable automation will fundamentally change the role of HR teams within businesses, who instead of focusing on recruiting new employees to fill in-demand roles, can instead look for internal talent to fill skills gaps.
Firms then benefit from demonstrating their credentials as responsible, ethical employers, while fulfilling their social contract with their workforce.
Employees meanwhile benefit from being viewed as an asset that needs to be cultivated, maintained, and rewarded, in line with their output, rather than a sunk cost.
The societal case for sustainable automation
Sustainable automation’s goals are good for society.
You only need to look at the role sustainable automation has to play in helping the government and business leaders fulfil the United Nation (UN)’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which were adopted in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty protect the planet, and ensure all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030 – to develop a grasp of its importance in delivering a more equitable society in general.
There are three SDGs in particular which sustainable automation – and the corporate and governmental intervention it demands – will be critical to fulfilling.
Let’s take a look at them in closer detail:
Quality Education: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
In the digital age the concept of a ‘lifetime skill’ no longer exists.
We’re living in an era marked by the constant evolution of technologies with potential applications in the workplace.
We need to encourage employees to view their skillset as a constantly evolving toolbox that sits alongside technology, so they have the appropriate skills when they are needed.
That means encouraging them to view learning as a tool that should be constantly revisited throughout their careers, both within and outside of work.
Gender Equality: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
The introduction of automating technologies can affect different demographics in different ways, and Faethm‘s figures suggest they are likely to have a greater impact on the female workforce than on their male counterparts.
In the UK for instance, roughly 13.1% of the work undertaken by women in the workforce has the potential to be automated in the next 5 years, compared to 11.4% of men.
This discrepancy might seem fairly insignificant, but given there are already fewer women in the workforce to begin with, it suggests there is potential for automation to negatively impact the employability of women more than men, which directly contravenes our goal of achieving gender equality.
We must consider a framework that ensures no single demographic or societal group is disproportionately impacted by the introduction of intelligent technologies to the workforce.
Equipping HR teams, who are often given the responsibility of driving diversity, equity and inclusion (D,E&I) within businesses, with these insights in advance should be seen as critical to ensuring the impact of any transformation initiatives undertaken is fair and equal.
Decent Work and Economic Growth: Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Automation has already caused a significant decline in the share of income that goes to workers.
The rise of machine learning suggests this trend could continue, leading to a direct decline in consumer spending, which in turn could hit the pockets of the very businesses pursuing automation.
In comparing this assessment with the UN’s goal for Decent Work and Economic Growth, the importance of sustainable automation is clear.
It’s imperative that we introduce automating technologies in a way that will support impacted workers, and empower them to transition to decent work opportunities in the future, so we don’t end up simply automating individuals who are also customers of the firms introducing these changes in the first place.
Economic mobility is a key ingredient to economic growth, and mustn’t be forgotten in our rush to integrate technology into existing workflows.
Based on sustainable automation’s integral role in achieving each of these goals, it’s time we started viewing it in the same way we regard the fight against climate change and the strive for D,E&I.
Each is a societal imperative that requires direct intervention from businesses and governments, and a framework so it can be measured, reported on and most importantly, delivered.
The corporate case for sustainable automation
So, the case to view sustainable automation as a social imperative is clear.
But how do we put forward an irrefutable case for businesses to consider sustainable automation?
The first consideration is the cost benefit or value for money, as is often the case. The cost benefit associated with persistent redundancies and recruiting new staff is clearly outweighed by the output gain from the reskilling and upskilling of today’s workforce to add value on top of the work which will be undertaken by automating technologies.
Then comes the question of its potential impact on capacity, or ‘output’.
Put simply, wherever and whenever they are applied automating technologies should, when deployed correctly, deliver a capacity gain by empowering affected employees to increase their skill baseline and move to in-demand roles.
The displacement of jobs simply isn’t a positive or progressive solution to delivering net capacity gains, and recognition of this further strengthens the case for sustainable automation.
Its role in mitigating future skills scarcity is also critical, too. There’s plenty of evidence that we’re facing a global scarcity of workers with data, digital and technology-resilient human capabilities, and we are also grappling with the likelihood skills gaps will persist in the future.
In that context, it is a corporate imperative to build these skills and capabilities from within, so HR teams have an evergreen pool of consistent and adequately-skilled talent at their disposal.
The cultivation of loyalty amongst employees also needs to be considered as one final, endearing factor.
Businesses that treat their people as a resource that can be used to generate value and derive profit aren’t going to find it easy to retain talent in the long term.
The focus needs to be on developing and enriching the individuals in those roles so they are encouraged to show loyalty, and valuable knowledge is kept within businesses.
The ‘future of work’ is today, and the case for businesses and governments to support the development of a sustainable workforce is irrefutable.
It’s time they took action on behalf of their human workforce to ensure sustainable employment for our future workforce. Both for their own fulfillment, and the fulfillment of our own goals as a society.
Executive Director and co-founder
Greg is an accomplished sales leader from an enterprise software background. His work has focused on building customer-centric organizations and elevating enterprise systems to the cloud.
In 2018 he joined forces with Mike Priddis to create Faethm, an AI platform that empowers organizations globally to navigate the evolution of work. This enabled Greg to pursue one of his great passions (aside from basketball) tackling significant socioeconomic challenges, like the digital skills gap.