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The Integration of Human and Digital Labor

Doom and gloom scenarios for massive unemployment usually put the blame square on emerging cognitive technologies, including Robotics Process Automation (RPA), artificial intelligence and machine learning.

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Doom and gloom scenarios for massive unemployment usually put the blame square on emerging cognitive technologies, including Robotics Process Automation (RPA), artificial intelligence and machine learning. This disruptive digital destiny is predicted by some to affect two-thirds of the knowledge worker marketplace and eliminate millions of jobs from the economy.

However, automation can also create new jobs and enhance human skills and expertise. Certainly, as businesses and governments seek to streamline processes and reduce costs, many jobs will likely be reconfigured and redesigned, especially middle-income routine work. But that doesn’t mean humans are going anywhere: Ultimately, cognitive technologies can transform the enterprise into a powerful innovation engine. The challenge for leaders is to integrate and make the most of both kinds of labor.           

Keep in mind, this is hardly the first time the workforce has been dramatically reshaped, but it is happening now in a way that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes, says Cliff Justice, Partner, U.S. Leader, Cognitive Automation and Digital Labor at KPMG. The world last saw this massive shift around the turn of the 20th century, with such changes as the birth of the assembly line, and the mechanization of factories on a broad scale. This allowed more products to be developed and food to be farmed at a lower cost, which created a dramatic change to the downstream economy and spawned a whole new wave of industries and jobs didn’t exist before.

Now, we are in the midst of what some call the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which brings machine intelligence together with all the other digital technologies that have become increasingly fast and inexpensive. While it will without a doubt reshape the type of jobs we have and the types of work we do, it will also create a whole new set of products we don’t sell today and a whole new base of consumers to buy these products, says Justice. And reshaped does not necessarily mean the jobs themselves become automated, but the tasks and the activity within the job, he adds. “It’s important to separate the jobs from the activity,” he says.

The quickening pace of change for digital-meets-human labor

The biggest change when it comes to this labor transformation may be the pace of change itself. The skillsets that are required and the pace of making those adaptations in the workforce is happening at a faster, digital-level speed. “We’ve called it the clock speed dilemma — being able to adjust and mobilize a changing workforce at this exponential pace is by far the biggest challenge that business will face,” says Justice. It’s not that the people aren’t there to do the jobs, it’s that people don’t have the right skills to do the jobs, he explains: “There are more unfilled jobs than we have had in half century, in areas such as data analytics, computer sciences, marketing and research.”

In addition, organizations integrating digital and human labor have to adopt not just tactical changes, but shifts in how they interact and relate with the entire organizational structure — from dealing with employees and customers to how it processes information and curates data, and  how the enterprise competes with new players. “For traditional companies, digital companies are entering new markets and are disruptive because they operate on data — such as Uber and Airbnb,” he says. Digital labor is a component of that transition, he adds, but it’s also the augmentation of traditional labor with technology, bringing in large data sets and teaching a workforce to build automation.

“As companies build bots that automate much of the transactional work they do, they are able to move into other areas and redeploy their workforce,” he continues. “They’re not laying off big parts of the workforce; they are automating some of the more mundane, routine and repetitive transactions.” 

Improving the world of work

Integrating human and digital labor through automation is about taking the robot out of the human, says Justice, allowing humans to excel and create more value, making the workplace a better, more exciting place to work. “In many cases, the big drain on morale is a repetitive routine,” he says, offering the mundane example of filling out weekly expense reports. “The more we automate those processes and allow humans to focus on what humans can do — work that’s not repetitive, that incorporates creativity, judgment, interaction, problem-solving with other humans and working through challenges — those people are more satisfied at the core.”

Two elements have to be very clear, however, if the integration of human and digital labor is to be successful:

1) Make sure intentions are clear. 

The vision of digital transformation — which is at the core of these labor shifts — has to be communicated by the organization, says Justice. “As the company begins to develop its strategy around automation, it must communicate its vision to the workforce, customers and all other stakeholders, he explains. “In most cases, it’s not about downsizing and automating jobs, but creating value and new opportunities, so maintaining those clear messages is important.” 

2) Articulate necessary skills.  

It can be a big challenge for the organization to provide the training, tools and opportunities to develop the skills that will be required in the emerging digital and automated organization. “It will become increasingly essential to clearly articulate what skills are necessary in an environment with demographic changes due to a retiring workforce, as well as with the challenge of filling the jobs that will become available in this new wave of digitalization,” says Justice.

The bottom line is, human and digital labor will increasingly coexist. Company leaders from the C-suite and the IT team to HR professionals will need to work to provide a productive integration of both aspects of labor — to make the most of both and take advantage of the benefits of digital transformation, including reduced risk, increased efficiency and lower costs.