So often pronounced, but never more true, the world really is changing and fast...

No more so than in the world of work.

Perhaps it’ll be some time before we feel or understand the anticipated effects of major political events like Brexit on our way of life, but other changes on the horizon have a more noticeable impact. One such area lies in our move towards much greater automation. Our drive to use machines, computers and artificial intelligence to achieve the same business outcomes quicker, cheaper, or more efficiently or reliably ultimately means in the long term there will be much less reliance on humans to get stuff done. It’s been promised for years of course, but in 2016 we witnessed some significant steps towards this goal. It felt like people really started to sit up and take notice of what was happening.

In 2016 we saw serious advances in the debate around the adoption of driverless cars – a huge step towards automation. With over 1.2 billion vehicles in the world and 2 billion expected by 2035, the motor industry represents one on the key areas in which automation will be put to the test. The ingredients have been formulated in recent years; Tesla have proved that electronic cars can compete in the global automotive market and trials of self-driving models at Google and other institutions have progressed well. Overall, it was only a matter of time before driverless cars became a reality. As often the case, the latecomers to the discussion were the traditional market incumbents, but now even a number of manufacturers have publicly stated they are targeting 2020 or before to have their own driverless cars on the road.

The thing that really caught the mainstream media’s attention this year however was nothing to do with any of the car manufacturers. It came about instead when Uber, employer to over a million drivers around the world, started to trial self-driving cars and the world started to speculate about replacing their entire workforce with robots. The conversation shifted from issues of safety and management, to that of questions about what might happen to the drivers who are replaced by the new technology. At the same time it seemed, speculation mounted concerning what would happen to the many Amazon delivery drivers if Amazon’s ‘Prime Air’ delivery service, which uses drones, were to literally take off. With both prospects inevitable, these changes will leave large numbers of people having to find alternative work and quickly.

Uber and Amazon will argue effectively that they have helped to create employment for the millions of drivers around the world. Media commentators have mixed appreciation for the new technologies. There is scepticism about the unknowns such tech brings for all people whether they be inside or outside of the cars, or indeed in the way of, or behind the drones being operated. Regardless of the speculation, the innovators behind the shift have pushed on. A race to the street has emerged that echoes the 1960s space race, as companies compete to be the first to have a driverless car of the road. nuTonomy looks to have won the first round on the road, while Amazon continue to navigate the legislation and red tape to get their drones in the air.

Amazon and Uber are just two examples of pioneering companies who are not going to let public opinion or traditional approaches get in the way of achieving new heights in automation, and with it, margins. It must be noted that early successes at Amazon and Uber were in part related to their ability to amass an army of drivers across the world. Many drivers have gained work as a result of their growth. Going forward however, it seems the strategies of both companies will include eliminating as many driver roles as possible to lower their respective cost bases. What it shows is that leading companies are automating entire parts of their organisation to increase their competitiveness, regardless of the mood or feeling this creates amongst its own people or society. Let’s not forget too, both companies have overcome some stern government opposition on route to cementing their current global standings. They will likely face more if and when many workers face the prospect of looking for new jobs.

Fact is, the move towards automation by large global organisations is already the new norm and people better get used to it. Our examples of Amazon and Uber are somewhat more natural as both had already built businesses based on automating processes. Similar automation ‘orientated’ businesses will find it easier to transition to full automation.

However it is not just big digital players leading the way. Whether in the motor industry or transportation, 3D printing or digital manufacturing, business processing or data analysis or beyond, automation is already spreading at pace. Furthermore, once the accepted norm in one industry, it will transfer to others. In an ever-changing world it is more important than ever for us to think ahead about our human currency in the world of work. Of course, while collectively we work out how best to integrate our skills and attitudes with machines and computers, we must as individuals have a proper plan also (or at least a plan B!)

While some of our options to respond to automation will no doubt involve longer-term retraining or pursuit of further education, other options include broadening the very skills that our machine friends are less likely to tap into quite just yet. Focusing on our interpersonal capabilities, how we interact and relate to others is something with in our immediate grasp, as is importantly our capacity to look at ourselves, reflect and move forward with a greater appreciation of our goals, aspirations and understanding of our strengths and what we are good at.

Davenport and Kirby’s thorough HRB paper covers a range of ways in which we might step up, step aside, step into, step narrowly or step forward into automation.

Whether pondering our own immediate contribution or the contribution of our children, a complete focus on how we can augment our lives by complimenting our skills and interests against a backdrop of extremely useful automated tools, is the only way forward.

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