Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Automation and implication for employees

New York times has a fabulous article about how robots are taking over skilled work (using pic alongside). As part of firms we need to understand the nuances. What work can we substitute by robots? What work needs humans? Why so?

Understanding Automation
As discussed in my book Understanding Firms, overall work can be classified in three categories using ESK profile. ESK profile refers to content of work in terms of Effort, Skill and Knowledge. In first phase of productivity, machines developed to augment "effort". We called them tools as they were sufficiently dumb. As profile of the work changed towards higher skill-oriented work, the machines have caught on replacing human intervention in high skilled jobs. Earlier, these machines performed specified tasks repeatedly but a change in task was difficult for them to cope with requiring down time and modifications (temporary and permanent). What has changed is that, new machines are super flexible requiring no downtime to adapt. These machines work on variety of jobs and switch between them effortlessly. 

Yet, knowledge remains exclusive domain of humans. 
At the moment we do not or cannot have automated surgery machines as there are lot of decision points within a surgery process. However, robots do augment the surgeon in his skilled work of cutting, stitching, grasping etc.

Workforce profile will change
As I discussed in the book, the ESK requirement of the work is fulfilled by worker and machines together (and sometimes by process and materials used). Naturally, the workforce has to adapt its education and learning to take more decision centric roles rather than actual effort oriented task. It also means that workforce needs to have a higher knowledge profile.

With decision-making at the center of human contribution, creativity assumes prime importance as against uniformity and repeatability that were mainstay of prior manufacturing eras.

It means we need a more educated workforce (though nature of education needs to be drastically different). Previously, education was focussed on improving conformity, new education must focus on improving creativity.

Example of Material or Process contributing ESK is car painting where slight magnetic action allows uniform coating of paint. This work has contribution from material (a paint that has electro-magnetic properties) and by process (actually using that property to advantage).