The Australian Public Service (APS) Review identified that APS employees spend up to 40% of their time on tasks that could be automated. The Review outlines an optimistic future where automation and digitisation will free employees from routine tasks so they can spend more time on higher value activities.
What do we know about the effects of automation?
History shows us the automation of work has long been a source of social discontent. Karl Marx, in Das Kapital, in a section titled ‘The Strife Between Workman and Machine’ draws attention, through the eyes of Anthony Muller of Danzig, to the introduction of the Ribbon Loom in about 1530. Muller saw a:
‘… very ingenious machine, which weaves 4 to 6 pieces at once. But the Mayor being apprehensive that this invention might throw a large number of workmen on the streets, caused the inventor to be secretly strangled or drowned.’
Today, as Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us, there is persistent fear and concern about job losses and how humans will contribute to work. For instance, it is estimated that 6 out of 10 occupations have a component (approximately 30 per cent) that is automatable.
Our information about workforce attitudes to automation come from surveys, which give us mixed and partial views. For example, a study by the Pew Research Centre showed that 72% of Americans are worried about increasing automation in the workplace. But a similar study by the European Commission found that 80% of Swedes see automation and artificial intelligence as positive. Another survey showed that 83% of knowledge workers are willing to re-skill to work alongside a digital workforce. However, 44% of knowledge workers agree they are not confident the workforce will be able to adapt to working alongside software robots.
We are getting mixed messages about the response to automation.
The APS might be better served by focusing on forecasting the most likely effects of automation on the workforce and determining what can be done to position for those effects.
What is the effect of automation on the APS workforce?
In all likelihood, the automation and digitisation of APS activities will further shift workforce demand from unskilled to skilled employees. However, the APS already has a highly educated and skilled workforce, so the effect of automation and digitisation on workforce composition is likely to be nuanced. In general, while some jobs may disappear, it is anticipated that most will change shape.
Why? Because the intangibles of the workforce – skills, knowledge, and aptitudes – come to the APS as indivisible bundles that require time and effort to rework to meet changing business needs. For example, a productive employee cannot be substituted with two average employees. An expert in one field cannot be substituted for an expert in an unrelated field in the same organisation. We need time and effort to shape the workforce we need.
Automation allows high-quality employees to have a greater effect on organisational performance; the talent of an individual can be spread further. The APS Review’s assessment that employees will move from routine to high-value activities captures this quality effect. But it might not be the same for all employees.
It is those of average ability who cannot compete with automation that will need to acquire new knowledge and move into new roles. So, while more talented employees will benefit from automation, the APS will also need to invest in re-skilling other employees.
This is a shift in the way we have all been led to think about automation. Here, the effect of automation and digitisation is not defined by the nature of task but rather by talent of the individual performing it.
Automation allows talented employees to distribute their talent further to have a greater effect on performance. We also know that talented employees working together have a positive influence on the productivity of the employees they work with. The workforce effects are both dramatic and subtle.
What should the APS do now to position for the future?
APS leaders and planners will need to do three things:
- Get the governance right. Before the APS launches into ambitious future-of-work infused strategies, campaigns, and partnerships there is a need to establish the governance, principles, and ethical framework necessary to implement a scalable augmented workforce. The APS can look to leading providers of automation and cognitive technologies such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, which have all advocated for greater regulation of how and under what circumstances smart technology is used.
- Redesign work to maximise an augmented workforce. Automation will deliver big shifts in the way work is done but also little shifts. The big shifts will fundamentally redesign work, change relationships, shift decision points, require new ways of working, and demand new skills and knowledge. These shifts will need work designs that truly deliver an augmented workforce. The little shifts will position the automated workforce to work alongside the human workforce to improve and support existing practices. Designing for the augmented workforce will also prompt a significant rethink of talent management practices, and how existing staff are supported in achieving a level of digital literacy that enables them to work in tandem with a digital workforce.
- Build skills and knowledge. The stagnating practices of today’s workforce planning will need to be revitalised to support leaders in reshaping the workforce. There will need to be a move away from workforce accounting to the more complicated and troublesome question of forecasting skills and knowledge. This planning will need to be more closely entwined with business strategy and the potential of new technologies. Redesigning work will reveal new possibilities for making greater use of available human talent. The follow-on effects will impact on every aspect of the human resource lifecycle, from recruitment and selection to the way work is done to the definition of what it is to be ‘an employee’. Positioning now for the fluid movement between investing in core knowledge, emerging knowledge, and transient knowledge will be at the forefront of the APS’s organisational challenges.
Automation is not new, but it does require some thinking about
Automation and digitisation are already re-designing jobs and changing the workplace. Across the economy, people are doing what they have always done with new technology – experimenting. There will always be those, like the Mayor of Danzig, who will be concerned about the effect of automation on today’s workforce. But as the hysteria around job-losses abates, the APS needs to move toward taking thoughtful and deliberate action to bring the augmented workforce into being.
About the Authors
This article brings together the experience of Matthew Watkins and Angie Glance from Synergy’s Digital and Technology practice, and Dr David Schmidtchen from the People and Organisational Development practice. A referenced version of this article is available on request.