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The Future of Work

Friday December 11, 2015
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Automation is not just a phenomenon people encounter in the movies, but in real life at movie theaters, airports, banks—the list goes on and on. The real question we are left grappling with is: How will automation affect our own jobs and the workforce as a whole? Wednesday, Co.Exist, a publication of Fast Company, ran “Coping with the Age of Automation: Relax, Retrain, and Redistribute.” Is it really that simple?

Experts offer differing opinions. “Many point to technological revolutions of the past, which while displacing workers, also made their lives easier,” Ben Schiller writes for Co.Exist. Historically, technical gains helped increase jobs and raise productivity. Other experts believe that when machines take over jobs this time, the jobs won’t come back.

A recent preliminary report released by McKinsey & Company, “Four Fundamentals of Workplace Automation,” suggests that the focus on automation taking over entire occupations is flawed. Instead, automation will replace certain tasks. 

“Very few occupations will be automated in their entirety in the near or medium term,” write Michael Chui, James Manyika, and Mehdi Miremadi in the report. “Rather, certain activities are more likely to be automated, requiring entire business processes to be transformed, and jobs performed by people to be redefined, much like a bank teller’s job was redefined with the advent of ATMs.”

The McKinsey & Company researchers found that as many as 45 percent of the activities workers perform can be automated by adopting current technologies. Yet, these activities are not just the ones done by low-skill, low-wage workers. Automation can change the duties handled by a vast array of workers, even those at the highest levels, such as financial managers, physicians, and senior executives—CEOs included. 

The benefits from automation are far reaching and include increased output, higher quality, and improved reliability. “The magnitude of those benefits suggests that the ability to staff, manage, and lead increasingly automated organizations will become an important competitive differentiator,” Chui, Manyika, and Miremadi write.

The McKinsey researchers acknowledge automation can’t replace capabilities such as creativity and sensing emotion. However, their work unveils that just 4 percent of activities performed by US workers require creativity and only 29 percent of activities require the ability to sense emotion.

“While these findings might be lamented as reflecting the impoverished nature of our work lives, they also suggest the potential to generate a greater amount of meaningful work,” Chui, Manyika, and Miremadi write.

Competitive differentiation

As technology moves at its reliably swift pace, what’s clear is that we can’t hesitate when it comes to technology’s place in supply chain and operations management. Consider the simple definition of automation from the APICS Dictionary: “The substitution of machine work for human physical or mental work, or the use of machines for work not otherwise able to be accomplished, entailing a less continuous interaction with humans than previous equipment used for similar tasks.”

Through its research, education, and certification programs, APICS helps companies and professionals gain the understanding they need to compete more effectively and approach their work more creatively. Find resources and opportunities at apics.org
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