WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
- In the age of automation humans are all too often the collateral damage but with vision and careful management that doesn’t always have to be the case
In the past eighteen months one of the world’s largest professional services and technology companies, Accenture, according to Richard Lumb, the CEO of their financial services unit, has managed to use a combination of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to automate over 17,000 jobs.
However, while stories like these are beginning to break daily – for example, Foxconn’s announcement that they were going to use automation to eliminate 1.2 million factory jobs, Bridgewater Associate’s program to automate its company and management teams and Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance recent announcement that they were replacing their claims processors with AI, no one at Accenture lost their job.
If that’s true, and I have no reason to suspect that it isn’t, then it’s a model that should make other companies sit up and take notice. Kudos.
Lumb made his announcement at last week’s World Economic Forum (WEF) and used the point to highlight that while greater automation and the rapid development and deployment of AI, bots, drones and robots across every sector of the economy are eliminating jobs it doesn’t necessarily follow, in the short term at least, that companies have to kick their employees to the curb.
“Over the last 18 months, automation replaced 17,000 jobs in back office processing. But actually, we haven’t laid those people off. We are fortunate enough to have been able to re-skill and reposition them. We took that approach when we were going to bring in greater automation at scale. Not every company is going to be able to do that and not every company is able to grow and expand like we do,” said Lumb.
Accenture has just under 400,000 employees and clients in over 120 countries around the world, and over 100,000 of those employees are in back office processing, and it was here where most of the automation took place.
“To be honest, automation helped us eliminate a lot of boring and repetitive tasks for workers. Since we take the approach of augmenting human staff with automation, it actually helped eliminated more menial work and boosted productivity for staff,” said Lumb.
Lumb said that they even provided 72,000 staff with new IT training, as another example of how the company making sure that staff are continually reskilled in a fast-paced technology environment. All of which underscores just how much the workforce is changing in the 21st century.
At the end of last year the WEF published their benchmark 2017 Global Risks report which concluded that the greatest threat to multi-nationals was unemployment and under employment, and earlier in 2016 another WEF report entitled The Future of Jobs concluded that skills and jobs displacement will affect every industry and geographical region. This was also backed up by a recent European Union report which concluded that “automation will leave no stratum of society untouched.”
Not to be left out though Accenture conducted its own research and produced a report entitled Harnessing Revolution that concluded that there will be disruption, but that it needs to be managed carefully and responsibly by both businesses and government, and, if managed correctly automation could, in fact, liberate human potential.
As for me, well, in a world where humans seem to be intent, and motivated, to automate each other – which I find ironic – it’s good to see a company that hasn’t just gone for the easy option of marching automation in through the front door while marching people out of the back door. That said though, it is clear that automation is an accelerating trend and while in this case Accenture has managed to re-skill everyone who was affected by the change that won’t, such as in the case of professional drivers and self-driving cars, always be the case.