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Commentary

Automation Is a Game Changer, Not a Job Killer

Your employees may view automation as a threat rather than an asset. How can you shift their perspective and empower them to use automation to their own benefit?

As COVID-19 vaccination rates rise, conversations about the future of work are picking up again. It’s no longer the workplace of 2019; the landscape has changed significantly since then. The automated, digitized world of work that we knew would arrive “soon” is suddenly here, and many of those changes are here to stay. Chief information officers and IT leaders have a key role to play in facilitating employee adoption and encouraging buy-in for the future of an AI-enabled workforce.

Organizations accelerated their digital transformation plans over the past year, or improvised along the way, to accommodate the rapid shift to virtual work. The attendant workplace gaps and opportunities came into clear focus. Now that attention is starting to shift from recovery to growth mode, organizations are directing investments toward digital enablement projects that improve agility and help employees work with greater efficiency from anywhere.

While many businesses embrace the positives of digitization, employees approach these changes with far less enthusiasm. Words like “automation” and “digitization” are loaded with baggage, invoking negative associations of job loss. Employees are quick to assume the worst, fearing they’ll be left behind or eliminated. But is that fear warranted?

Not so, according to BDO’s recent survey of middle market executives. The majority of companies are adding new digital enablement projects, with 34% planning to increase headcount and 42% comprehensively re-imagining job roles. Only 22% expect the use of automation to have a negative impact on headcount. In most cases, jobs are changing and evolving, requiring employees to work alongside new technologies, develop new skill sets and integrate automation into their daily work lives.

But for these digital initiatives to succeed, organizations need to secure employee buy-in. Otherwise, initiatives will fall well short of reaching maximum ROI. So, how can CIOs and IT leaders change resistance into adoption and dispel unwarranted fears among the workforce?

Step 1: Listen to concerns

More than any other element of an organization, employees are an invaluable resource for supporting a successful digital strategy. If digital investments are designed to improve employee performance and contribution to the business, it’s important to understand where they see the biggest problems or areas for improvement. Ask pointed questions to help ensure investments are directed appropriately. For instance, if you’re considering automating a particular business process, here are some questions you should ask:

  • What are major points of friction or difficulty for employees that could be alleviated through automation (e.g., difficult access to information, slow responses, high failure rates)?
  • Are there repetitive tasks that are overwhelming the business unit and the team(s) involved?
  • Are there specific technologies in use today that aren’t performing as anticipated? If so, why?

Step 2: Engage in conversation

When it’s time to roll out new digital initiatives, conversations about business improvement and outcomes warrant just as much attention as creating clear messaging around the vision of why technology will be added. Change tends to elevate levels of concern, and those concerns differ from team to team and person to person. Ultimately, everyone wants to understand if and how their job will be impacted and how their role would evolve. Carve out time to listen to concerns and questions at each stage of the process from design through deployment. Regularly solicit and incorporate feedback, and be clear about the problem to be solved, how it will improve the business, and how job roles or requirements may change (if at all).

Step 3: Acknowledge individual efforts

Gain specific input from employees who are attached to existing systems or tools that are targeted for change. Some employees may resist new technology because they, or a close colleague, were involved in creating, installing, updating, or advocating for systems currently in use. Seek out those individuals. Acknowledge the valuable contributions they made -- even minor ones -- and talk to them about the rationale behind changes underway. Ensure they don’t feel they are being phased out, even if the old system is.

Step 4: Invest in employees’ futures with your business

To realize the full potential of automation, employee adoption is critical. But some employees might feel the learning curve is too steep, or that their job is at risk because they don’t have the right digital skills to support changing job roles. The aforementioned survey found that 53% of organizations are implementing training to upskill their workforce with a focus on digital fluency. Providing extra assistance to help employees adapt is crucial not only to keeping good talent, but also to sustaining the long-term changes you envision.

The successful adoption of digitization and automation initiatives stems directly from the way CIOs and IT leaders engage employees throughout the process. Quash concerns through clear, direct communication strategies. When employees feel they are engaged and that their knowledge and feedback is respected, heard, and supported during times of change, they are much more likely to embrace the importance and benefits of that digitally enabled change.

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Robert Brown is a managing director and senior client executive at BDO Digital for Retail CPG and Hospitality Food & Beverage. He has more than 30 years of experience as an entrepreneur and senior executive for Fortune 100 corporations, overseeing multi-billion-dollar P&L’s, marketing, sales, product, engineering, finance, and customer experience initiatives. Robert has extensive experience in the mobile, wireless, software and emerging intelligent technologies such as AR, AI, NLP, Machine Learning, IoT and FinTech.