Unless we start being honest and ethical about workplace automation, we’ll face a massive blow-back

Is automation self-obviously a good thing… or does all our talk of efficiency mask a much more brutal capitalist truth: that robots really are for replacing humans?

It’s an important question—and one that has had a very rigorous exploration in Alan Pelz-Sharpe’s latest ‘Ethical Innovation’ column for KMWorld magazine.

For Alan—ex Ovum and 451, and who now heads up an advisory firm focused solely on disruption and innovation in information management, Deep Analysis—now is definitely time to start seriously considering these issues.

His starting point is that while in a technical briefing with a software vendor, the following rather startling question was posed: “How many resources are required to execute that task—of course, that covers both humans and robots?”

As he notes (and we surely all would agree), that is not a formulation anyone would have used even 5 years ago—but many, if not most organisations still like to use the term ‘human resources’, even though many, he jokes, “are hell-bent on converting many human resources to robotic resources”.

Is there some hypocrisy or self-serving going on, he goes on to ask, in the tech industry’s debates on automation? After all, as he notes, “While the industry talks about little other than automation, it also claims that automation will not impact jobs; that somehow or other, pixie dust unicorns (presumably) will move displaced workers to newly created and far more rewarding work activities.”

There is a “stark difference”, he reveals, between what technology vendors and systems integrators say in confidence and what they say publicly: “The truth of the matter is that virtually every vendor or system integrator I speak to tells me the same story. Cutting costs (people) is the number-one priority for their customers. Actually saying aloud that the purpose of automation is to automate is considered shocking and controversial—which makes me think of a quote by Noel Coward: ‘It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.’”

‘Don’t expect your workers, processes, and business activities to go along without a fight’

Alan doesn’t want to end the push for HR automation, nor automation in the round; he just thinks we should be being more honest about all this. There’s an ethical dimension to such honesty, he is suggesting, but also a practical one… that just like ERP and offshoring before, hastily-implemented automation plans that junk workers that you then have to expensively hire back really won’t be a good look for enterprises.

As he points out, “If you are not honest about it, then don’t expect your workers, processes, and business activities to go along without a fight or at least an attempt to make your work as tricky as they can… automation and innovation in technology can be used ethically to cut overspending, innovate, improve services, remove bottlenecks, lower exception rates, and increase accuracy. But when it is used as a blunt instrument, it seldom works or saves money in the long run.”

We think there’s much to reflect on here, and commend the full article to all thedmcollaborators. As he says himself, “Do we ride this wave of innovation and automation ethically or not?”

thedmcollaborators editor

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