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A profession reformed, not replaced

Mar 29, 2019

By Ravin Jesuthansan

When leaders describe how advances in automation will affect job prospects for humans, predictions typically fall into one of two camps. Optimists say that machines will free human workers to do higher-value, more creative work while the pessimists predict massive unemployment. What almost everyone gets wrong is focusing exclusively on the idea of automation “replacing” humans. Simply asking which humans will be replaced fails to account for how work and automation will evolve. In my recently published book, Reinventing Jobs: A 4-Step Approach for Applying Automation to Work, John Boudreau and I argue that while automation can sometimes substitute for human work, it also has the potential to create new, valuable, and fulfilling roles for humans.

To strategically understand and optimise work, automation leaders must:

  • deconstruct jobs and reconfigure the work;
  • fit artificial intelligence (AI) within the larger constellation of work automation (including robotic process automation, cognitive computing and social robotics); and
  • adopt a systematic step-by-step approach to identifying and executing on work automation opportunities.

Start with the work, not the 'job' or the technology

Applying automation requires thinking outside the boundaries of traditional jobs, units, hierarchies and processes. The organisation must be reconsidered a hub and capital source for an ecosystem of work providers. Those ‘providers’ include AI and automation, but also include human sources such as employees, contractors, freelancers, volunteers and partners. The optimal combination of these providers seldom appear if you frame the question as, “in which jobs will AI replace humans?” Perhaps the wholesale replacement of humans by AI or robots is 50 years away for some jobs; however, optimal decisions about AI and automation reveal themselves only when you deconstruct and reconfigure the work elements within the jobs and when you look to do that, the actual effects are substantial and will occur much faster.

Automation in accounting

In Reinventing Jobs, we explored three types of automation: robotic process automation (RPA), cognitive automation and social robotics. RPA and cognitive automation have specific implications for the accounting profession. RPA automates high volume, low complexity and routine, administrative, ‘white collar’ tasks. RPA involves the application of routine algorithms to enable the categorisation and integration of various data sets. It is often the logical successor to outsourcing many administrative processes, further reducing costs and increasing accuracy. Optimising RPA can only be done when the work is deconstructed. For example, RPA will seldom replace the entire 'job' of an accountant. Certain work elements, such as talking a client through their audits, will remain a human task. Other elements, such as requesting data and synthesising it, are optimally done with RPA.

Cognitive automation takes on more complex tasks by applying intelligence (or cognition), like pattern recognition or language understanding to various tasks. The Amazon Go retail stores have no cashiers or checkout lanes. Customers pick up their items and go, as sensors and algorithms automatically charge their Amazon account. Automation has replaced the work elements of scanning purchases and processing payment. Yet, other elements of the “job” of store associate are still done by humans, including advising in-store customers about product features.

AI and other forms of automation will transform this and virtually every other profession. By some estimates, the work of an accountant will see more change over the next five years than it has over the previous 500 as these new work options take hold. But, this will be a profession transformed, not replaced.

Ravin Jesuthasan is an author and Managing Director of Willis Towers Watson. Ravin will also be a keynote speaker at the upcoming Influence leadership conference in Lyrath Estate, 7 May 2019.