Touchscreen ordering at McDonald’s. Self-checkout at the grocery store.
Programmable logic controllers that guide manufacturing processes. Industrial robots that weld, assemble and, even, inspect.
And perhaps one that really sparks widespread imagination: driverless vehicles. We probably have some time before we can get a positive result from telling our iPhones, “Siri, drive the kids to soccer practice,” but numerous advancements are already underway. Take, for instance, the Google Self-Driving Car Project.
These are only a few of the ways in which automation, or the use of control systems that reduce human involvement in a process, is taking shape at the moment.
Automation, it seems, is one critical aspect of turbulence and change that’s affecting businesses and everyday life. It’s a trend that’s not going away—it’s not actually new, either, for that matter—and it’s one that business leaders need to continue watching.
The topic of automation writ large is far too broad to capture here, but here are a few considerations for business leaders on the topic:
- We are indeed in interesting times, as computing power continues to accelerate our ability to complete tasks with increasingly less direct human involvement.
- The tasks or processes that are the best candidates for automation are those that are relatively routine and repetitive.
- Some of the advantages of automation include the ability to use machines to complete dangerous or boring, repetitive tasks; potential labor cost savings and the ability to complete work beyond the realm of human abilities.
- Some of the disadvantages of automation include high initial costs and the need for continual maintenance of the system, which may involve highly technical monitoring.
- Not all tasks or processes can be automated, particularly those that involve non-routine types of work.
- Automation isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. For example, consider the many aspects of driving your car that are already automated (depending on the age and model your vehicle, of course): cruise control, warning systems, climate control, and so on. Sometimes, the best returns in automation may come from automating parts of a system, not the entire system.
- Monitor your environment. Advances in automation may lead to increased capabilities or productivity of your competitors, so it’s critical to stay abreast of what’s going on in your industry. Read trade publications, attend conferences, and systematically evaluate potential automation candidates in your organization.
Additionally, keep in mind that advances in automation that affect your industry may not originate in your industry. As such, you’ll want to not only monitor your industry but also automation and its influence upon business more broadly.
The implications of automation certainly can capture the imagination. For example, many are concerned about the influence of automation on jobs and opportunities available to people for participation in the labor force.
Here are a few resources for further reading:
- How to Save Time and Money Through Automation (Forbes, Nov. 17, 2016)
- Robots and Automation May Not Take Your Desk Job After All (Harvard Business Review, Nov. 22, 2016)
- Preparing Your Workforce for the Automation Age (Harvard Business Review, Nov. 23, 2016)
- David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote an excellent paper on automation and how it intersects with human capabilities and behavior
- Numerous podcasts and other resources from The Library of Economics and Liberty
Regardless of whether you’re excited, terrified or somewhere in between regarding the future of automation, business and work, it’s a reality that we all must face. It’s a trend that I intend to continue monitoring as we head into 2017—because it’s a big one.
As it is with all disruptive trends, although we cannot control everything about the future, we can anticipate, we can see the small signs and weak signals. The sooner we sense those forces of change, the sooner we can respond.
And sometimes, that’s what makes the difference between change being a disaster or an opportunity.
What are some of the most compelling examples of automation trends you're noticing? I'd love to hear about them.
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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.