Andrew McAfee, a business school researcher at the Massachusetts institute of Technology who examines employment trends, contends that artificial intelligence (AI) and other advances in technology may be pushing more people out of white-collar jobs. According to a recent article in Technology Review, McAfee explained how automation can eliminate jobs by using the example of a tax preparer who might not be able to find work because his job was “automated away” by TurboTax or the assembly line worker who is replaced by a robot. Even while productivity may increase because of technology, it may take far fewer people in the loop to result in those high productivity levels.
McAfee’s view is not apocalyptic, although he does express concern about the growing gap between the “haves and the have-nots.” He doesn’t foresee a world run by robots or jobs being fully replaced by virtue of intelligence-driven hardware and software. Rather, McAfee states that artificial intelligence can and will be used to automate mundane tasks that knowledge workers now do, thus freeing up their time to do more high-value or more interesting tasks–a belief shared by most AI researchers today.
Midsize businesses may have a particular interest in the topic of knowledge automation, in part because the midsize enterprise is often just as complex as the large business, but with fewer resources and tools to manage it. IT shops at midsize companies must select the best technology automation solutions while balancing cost and the ability to keep up a coordinated and effective IT infrastructure. This is often more difficult to do than it seems, because many technology solutions, including ERP solutions, are made for the large enterprise and cannot be easily scaled to suit the needs of midsize business. Further, the level of integration of business processes and data processes may vary widely within the company, leading to difficulties in process automation. IT managers must conduct a thorough evaluation of enterprise processes and applications, as well as of available tools and how they might help with automating existing knowledge tasks and business processes.
It is difficult to imagine that IT analysts could ever be automated completely out of a job–the Washington Business Journal reports that IT jobs have hit record numbers in recent months and lead in overall US job growth. But it is fairly easy to imagine how the right technology can effectively take over mundane IT tasks or make them “self-service,” freeing IT staff to concentrate on more critical tasks. In a time where IT is asked to wear many hats in the office, to have the multiple skill sets, and play a critical role in business, knowledge automation should not be feared as a job-killer, but as a necessary tool to help midsize businesses level the playing field with large businesses.
McAfee suggests that the companies that will be successful when it comes to future automation will be those that determine the “right” mix of human labor and automation. For midsize companies, the starting point is in assessing the automation needs of the business and in selecting the right technology tools to assist the IT shop.