Is Automation Putting The Human Workforce on Auto-Pilot?

Workforce on Autopilot.July 6, 2013: An Asiana Airlines flight carrying 307 people from South Korea to San Francisco clipped a seawall and crashed, killing three people. Although all of the causes of the crash are still being investigated at this writing, reports indicate that one big contributing factor was the pilots’ reliance on automation. They were so used to flying on auto-pilot that they didn’t notice or respond quickly enough when the auto-throttles (controlling the airspeed) failed—until it was too late.

 

Now, let’s look at corporations today. With the proliferation of automation and the rise of smart machines, are we all going on auto-pilot—unable to function if systems are down, attacked or an application fails?

No one is arguing the great benefit of automation. No one is questioning how machine learning can transform business as we know it today. But, because of automation, are we forgetting to train and retrain on the fundamentals, just in case? More importantly, how can we best adapt to this brave, new automated world without running the risk of crashing and burning?

Most agree it’s all in the approach.

Rethink How You Think About Automation

“I believe in labor automation coupled with labor intelligence. That means using automation to free your employees from manual, repetitive tasks so they can use their time to solve bigger problems,” explained Jonathan Crane, chief commercial officer for IPSoft. “The real value of automation is not in labor reduction but in empowering your workforce to focus on your strategic business goals.”

So, it’s not always about eliminating a step in the process or an employee but shifting that step from man (or woman) to machine.

“I think it’s important to understand what automation can or cannot do, and how the automation best supports the human need,” Crane said. “For example, I can’t get excited about sitting in the back seat of a Google car and having it drive me around. However, I can get excited about driving a vehicle with automated intelligence systems that will stop the car to avoid an accident. I still have to know how to drive the car; automation gives me a way to do it more safely.”

Document, Document, Document

But, human nature is human nature, often functioning on a “need to know” basis. The longer something’s handled for us, the less likely we are to remember how to do it the “old” way.

The best way to ensure the basics aren’t forgotten? Document, document, document.

“You have to remain diligent with your process documentation and system documentation,” said Patty Hatter, CIO and senior vice president of Operations for McAfee. “You have to continually keep these up-to-date as things change. So often companies find themselves in situations where only one or two people know how a specific process works or how to maintain old legacy systems, because no one has written it down. They’re putting themselves at risk.”

Always Have a Back-up Plan

Although most companies are diligent about their disaster recovery plans, and test these periodically, many business continuity plans fall short. Contact phone numbers aren’t updated, employees aren’t properly trained, and no one knows until ‘the moment of truth’ that their staff knows how to respond.

“It is critical to make the time to conduct periodic business continuity exercises so your staff knows how to keep the operation going if something goes wrong. Going through these drills is a real opportunity to make sure everything’s up-to-date and to confirm that you’ll still be able to take care of your customers when something unexpected happens,” Hatter said. “And the odds are, something is going to happen—your POS systems are going to shut down on the busiest holiday weekend, your accounting system is going to have a problem at quarter end—if you have a viable plan B, you’re going to survive the crisis.”

Different drills at different levels ensure employees know exactly what to do when someone pulls the “emergency” trigger, from the number they call to the step-by-step contingency process they follow.

“These drills have to occur at all levels of the organization, on a consistent basis,” Hatter said. “So often, the business continuity plan is created by company leadership and never communicated to the people who actually have to execute the plan. If you don’t test it out, if you don’t do the drills, you really have no way of knowing if your plan is going to work. You can’t wait until you’re in emergency mode to work out the kinks.”

Expect Some Setbacks Along the Way

As with any type of change, things will not always go smoothly.

“If you think back to the early days of farm automation and manufacturing automation, there were always some injuries during the learning process,” Crane explained. “So we got smarter, developed better training tools, and now, worker safety has improved.”

As the use of automation increases, expect some bruises along the way. Like anything, we learn as we go.

“Automation is an economic reality for corporations, just like it was in the farming industry and the manufacturing industry in years past,” Crane said. “We can’t go back to yesterday’s status quo any more than we can go back to the pitchfork and baling hay manually.”

Recognize the Potential without Giving Up Power

Without question, the world is changing. Smart machines and virtual personal assistants become vital parts of the workforce, changing the way companies operate and human beings work and live. Soon, our machine pals will be grading papers, filling medical prescriptions and taking care of the more mundane, repetitive tasks—streamlining processes and reducing costs.

But the message is clear: use the new technology tools but don’t give these tools the power. Don’t become so reliant on automation that, if they fail, your organization shuts down.

Just as important, understand that there are some things that technology just can’t replace, no matter how efficient.

“Here in New York, they’ve decided the horse-drawn carriages in Central Park are antiquated, so they want to replace these with electric cars. While it’s true that the cars are more efficient, I’ve never seen a kid want to pet an electronic car or feed it a carrot,” Crane said.

Well, not yet, anyway.

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