Enterprises that use automation, AI, to slash payroll may regret it


The most common argument against the dire predictions that automation, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, cognitive computing, natural language processing, and robots will lead to massive job loss — which already is happening and will continue to do so — is that these technologies will liberate workers from the drudgery and menial aspects of their  jobs, enabling them to focus on high-value activities that are aligned with the organization’s goals.

Unfortunately, the premise behind this vision ignores two obvious things: 1) Many enterprises will take advantage of smart technologies to lower their headcount, as has happened throughout history, and 2) Some workers may not want to be “liberated” from their menial work. There could be any number of reasons for this — they prefer to focus their mental energies elsewhere, their performance benchmarks are understandable (and easily attainable), they find security in the anonymity of menial work (it’s hard to mess up!), or they simply aren’t highly motivated.

Those workers — that is, those who haven’t already lost their jobs to emerging technologies — will be in trouble as automation and intelligent machines and networks perform yet more activities previously handled by enterprise employees. And maybe that’s just a hard reality: If you can’t demonstrably add value to an organization, what’s the purpose of your employment?

Unfortunately, even if you are an employee who brings more to the table than activities that can be done by machines, there’s no guarantee that you would keep your job. After all, how many strategic thinkers does an enterprise really need?

But enterprises that transform automation/AI merely into an opportunity to hack their payrolls may ultimately regret their shortsightedness — not just because the office has become really lonely, but because by slashing the workforce they run the risk of giving away their most valuable competitive assets, which are people (well, the right people).

Some enterprise leaders may believe that smart technologies give them a competitive advantage, but over time what automation and intelligent machines actually will do is level the playing field.

This means that the only way for enterprises to gain an advantage over competitors is to have 1) a better business strategy (including products and services) and 2) employees who can deliver added value through their work and communications skills, professional relationships, experience, judgment, and ability to collaborate.

Yet many — maybe even most — enterprises aren’t prepared to transition themselves and their workforce toward an economy in which employees have dramatically redefined roles. An article in Harvard Business Review recommends a four-step approach for determining not which jobs will be lost, but “what work will be redefined, and how?” The first three steps include deconstructing work into discrete elements, understanding the various opportunities presented by automation, and managing the decoupling of work from the organization, which basically means hyper-outsourcing.

The fourth step is based on the results of the first three, HBR writes:

The combination of automation, work deconstruction, and reconfiguration will often redefine the meaning of “organization” and “leadership.” The “organization” must be reconsidered as 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.

“It won’t happen all at once or in every job,” HBR concludes, “but it will happen, and leaders will need an automation strategy that realizes its benefits, avoids needless costs, and rests on a more nuanced understanding of work.”

Participation is not optional, unless you consider survival optional.


  1. […] I’m fairly certain many enterprise decision-makers would see a chance to save money by reducing IT headcount. However, as I wrote in February, that’s a risky strategy: […]

  2. […] it makes sense to retain older employees who still can contribute value to an organization. As I wrote in February, “Enterprises that transform automation/AI merely into an opportunity to hack […]

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