Automatic for the people

There is no doubting the key role automation has to play in modern commerce, but people will always rule the workforce, says Tony Deblauwe of Celigo As businesses seek to save costs amidst the economic downturn in Europe, the topic of automation will undoubtedly be raised across boardrooms....

There is no doubting the key role automation has to play in modern commerce, but people will always rule the workforce, says Tony Deblauwe of Celigo

As businesses seek to save costs amidst the economic downturn in Europe, the topic of automation will undoubtedly be raised across boardrooms. And with good reason: automation can save money, minimise errors and improve consistency, all the while performing tasks with greater efficiency than a human ever could.

However, the narrative popularised in the press, culture and beyond that “robots are taking over” is hugely oversimplified and misses the point. Workers would be right in feeling anxious about their job security if that were really the case, and almost all automation applications require human input. Outdated notions of what automation looks like undersell its true benefits. In practice, it does far more to augment the roles people already occupy than take them away. In doing so, employee workloads can be made more manageable – which helps to prevent burnout related resignations – and they can turn their attention to higher value-adding tasks.

Robots are needed, but most workers need not worry

It would be naive to totally reject that some jobs are better suited for machines. For example, having robots carry out repetitive or dangerous tasks makes total sense, and it’s unlikely that the workers once tasked with these activities will miss them.

But ultimately, that’s where concerns over redundancy should stop. Robots with highly sophisticated AI capabilities that allow them to make complex or strategic decisions, the way a person would, are still very much science fiction for the time being. Even the likes of ChatGPT or AI generated art, which seem to go against the long-held belief that robots can’t be creative, show that machines still have their limits. It’s clear from looking at what they’re capable of that there’s still no replacement for the innate “humanness” that we all bring to our roles.

However, it’s that humanity that drives the need for process automation. As more and more businesses begin to lean on data to drive decision making, ensuring the quality and integrity of this data is essential. Relying on poorly managed data is a recipe for misguided decisions, and every human touchpoint increases the chances that information gets compromised. It’s called “human error” for a reason.

Separating fact from fiction

The automotive sector, which long ago brought robots into the picture, serves as a useful metaphor for how automation should, and can, work. While machines are widespread throughout the manufacturing process, humans are still needed at factories to ensure production lines are running smoothly and that the machines are doing their jobs.

The same goes for the automation of business processes. While some tasks can be automated, there’s still ample room for workers to thrive in their roles. Already, McKinsey & Co. state that three in five occupations could technically automate 30% of their tasks, creating plenty of opportunities for workers to carve out more time for complex tasks that help them reach their full potential. Rather than replacing them, the introduction of automation would in all likelihood improve their experiences on the job and maximise their impact on organisations.

What’s more, most of us already experience automation at work, even if we don’t recognise it as such. Whether it is as simple as setting up a rule to move emails from a specific sender to a folder or a complicated chain of multiple processes to communicate and update teams in real time, a task is being done without human input.

While it is easy to think of organisations as singular, united units that operate as one, this is generally not the case. The systems being used to work and collaborate were not designed for building efficiencies at scale and are instead more akin to ad hoc integrations. For example, an e-commerce business might use one platform to sell products, another to manage inventory and a third to arrange for reorders. If the merchant’s page doesn’t connect with their inventory management platform, they risk showing items to shoppers they cannot deliver. And if the inventory software is siloed away from the ordering system, somebody will have to manually update the latter to ensure products are replaced in time.

To optimise how businesses work and the decisions that are made, ensuring software talks to each other and relays information is critical. This is particularly true in the hybrid world we now live in, one where businesses need to be agile enough to support a workforce spread wider than ever before. Communicating with colleagues has become more difficult, but it doesn’t have to be the same for the processes that organisations employ.

Why HR should embrace automation, not fear it

The impact automation can have on employee morale cannot be understated. By handing over repetitive, time-consuming and boring tasks to machines, workers are freed up to, in essence, be more “human”. Whether it’s engaging with clients to provide a stellar customer experience or taking on demanding projects, employees can be empowered to do more parts of their job that they enjoy, and less that they don’t.

Allowing staff to showcase what makes each individual worker unique ensures they feel involved in the business’ wider success, not just a cog in a machine. And in this economy, that could prove the difference between success and failure.

People want to feel useful and needed at their jobs, and making their roles more fulfilling and engaging is a huge step towards that. Communicating the benefits of automation to employees may be a challenge, but it’s one worth tackling. That starts with clearly dispelling the notion it will replace them and promoting the ways it will improve their jobs and internal processes to liberate people from the mundane.


Tony Deblauwe is the Vice President of Human Resources at Celigo. Tony started out in Silicon Valley, giving him a unique perspective working in startups and enterprise companies. Besides his company work, Tony is also an author, app developer and coach.