Automation and the Future of Work

This is part of a series of pieces as part of a discussion around the Future of Work. This sketch is a different way of visualising some of the factors that set the context, and influence the thinking around, the Future of Work conversation.

I will pick a couple of these out over the next few days to expand upon, but for today, i want to explore Automation. All of this work is really about re-contextualising the conversation away from simply ‘where’ and ‘how’ we work, into a broader narrative around the evolution of our Organisations, and mechanisms of productivity and effect.

It’s no insight to say that automation is disruptive, but it’s worth considering exactly how it disrupts. At the individual task level, that is straightforward: it removes humans from the equation, either freeing them up for the ‘added value’, or casting them onto the scrapheap.

More broadly, it arguably tilts the overall landscape of work, away from ‘thinking and doing’ into ‘thinking and engaging’, or ‘thinking and investing’. Whilst not all roles will be automated (at least, not yet), all roles will be impacted by automation – either through the need to conceptualise what can be automated, to the work of automation, to the evolved ways we lead in re-worked teams.

Automation is inseparable from a conversation around the Future of Work, but also, it is not the only factor.

Take an example: the Little Ripper Lifesaver drone, which first successfully carried out a rescue in 2018. It’s an automated drone system that drops lifesaving aids to those in distress, working alongside ground based lifesavers, reporting on it’s activity. Consider what it disrupts.

Little Ripper isn’t just a piloted drone: it can identify sharks, or crocodiles, it can deploy and report without intervention, bypassing control loops. It can hence operate more synchronously, in disrupted communications environments, without getting tired. It can save lives.

This causes ripples out through existing lifesaving systems: we have to decide how to budget, deploy, and support, daily activity, enhanced with these new resources. Will they create greater depth, or breadth, of coverage? Ultimately will they enhance, or replace, human systems, and will that decision be made on actuarial financial advice alone, or as part of a broader social conversation?

Automation disrupts systems of production and effect, but also the social systems that surround them.

Once sense in which this plays out is that it shifts the marketplace of emotional investment into the Organisation: in systems where our hands do the utilitarian work, there are many opportunities for utilitarian engagement, but in systems of increased automation, there may be fewer. Essentially we may tip the market to a place where most of the opportunity to invest is held in value creation, strategy, or leadership. Which will suit some, but not all.

This is probably a naive simplification, but also probably not entirely wrong: there is certainly a shift in the marketplace, and as we envisage the potential Futures of Work, we must account for these, through the questions that we ask as we set strategy, through to recruitment, through to understanding how we support and enable value creation, and listen to the ideas that are created – and how we recognise and reward this potentially higher value work.

Some of the leading thinkers around this space will take a view that there will be a diminishing need for ‘workers’, and that we will have to find social structures and financial mechanisms where we essentially pay people not to work: universal basic incomes may be one part of this solution. And this again loops back around to understanding the ‘Future of Work’ in terms of ‘Why we Work’, which i explored yesterday.

The blog is my primary writing and ’sense making’ space as i #WorkOutLoud. You can find my other work in a range of spaces, from ’Social Leadership Daily’, for practitioners, through to Sea Salt Learning, for organisational solutions at scale.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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