Beyond automation anxiety | KPMG Global
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Beyond automation anxiety

Beyond automation anxiety

Fear of change is no excuse for falling behind.


Global Head of Shared Services & Outsourcing Advisory

KPMG in the U.S.


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Since the original Industrial Revolution, every generation has faced its own version of “automation anxiety”: the dread that emerging technologies will render your skills redundant.

From what I’ve seen, that fear is very real in today’s world. The pace of technological change is so rapid that jobs seem to be disappearing before our eyes. It’s also happening in unexpected places. Technologies such as RPA are not only taking control of repetitive, process-driven tasks – whether in the finance function or on the factory floor – but they are also encroaching upon highly skilled occupations, from surgery to actuarial sciences.

For good reason, businesses want to invest in these technologies. Simply put, the size of the prize is enormous. In the last 10 years alone, disruptive technologies have spawned more than 100 unicorn companies, worth more than US$1bn each. We have also seen the rapid emergence of the platform economy, with a total market value of over $4.3tr.

Yet organizations will not grasp the benefits of emerging technologies without the support and buy-in of their workforces – and that is where automation anxiety is creating a challenge. Employees will be reluctant to champion any technology that they believe might take their job, creating further roadblocks to implementation.

Switching the mind-set

To me personally, it is clear that a major repositioning is required. It should be remembered, after all, that the biggest opportunity created by automation is not to reduce costs by replacing full-time equivalents with robots – it is to build a stronger workforce, which has the skills needed to innovate, create new value and secure competitive advantage.

In my personal experience the organizations that help their employees develop new abilities and knowledge stand the best chance of harnessing the power of emerging technology. But, unsurprisingly, most of the media coverage about automation and AI tends to focus on potential job losses.

Reframing the mind-set and inspiring employees by focusing on the exciting benefits of a new role(s) is critical. In itself, piecemeal engagement with new technologies will not be enough. Rather, business leaders need to embed structures that provide a holistic view of the impacts delivered by these initiatives throughout the organization. Organizations that succeed in establishing the right framework for their needs can break out of the paralysis that fear of change engenders.

Below are the five steps that I recommend to help your organization get started:

Win the backing of the C-suite and board

Engaging the most senior figures in the organization is a critical step towards employee acceptance of automation. It may mean naming an executive sponsor responsible for each key technology or initiative and/or ensuring governance around technological disruption is a board-level topic. Beyond this, it’s about finding a way to recognize successful initiatives, highlighting successes to encourage staff to step out of their comfort zones.

Engage employees in governance

Implementation relies on structures that define responsibility and accountability for decision-making processes. These might include a separate emerging technology council with membership from across the organization and a project management office to facilitate emerging technology-driven innovation.

In my opinion, the membership for these bodies should be drawn throughout the entire organization, with diverse skill sets and seniority. There should be an emphasis on collaboration and communication that will engage the workforce.

Implement agile innovation

Embedding emerging technologies and adopting innovative approaches will provide new and exciting ways of working. Integrating employees as part of these changes will motivate everyone to pull in the same direction to better understand the bigger purpose of what they are doing and why.

Build a center of excellence

A center of excellence can leverage scarce resources and help apply learning across the organization. Key advocates for new ideas are essential in helping the broader workforce overcome its natural fear of change. Once familiar with the center of excellence, employees are reassured that they have a place to go with any concerns about the impact of technology on their role.

Deploy risk management

Over time, as adoption of new technologies spreads, it will become increasingly important to adapt traditional enterprise governance models to acknowledge the unique attributes of emerging technologies. The traditional disciplines of risk management, however, remain as relevant as ever.

After establishing the essentials of risk management, you can create an environment where staff feel encouraged to experiment and are unafraid to fail, within boundaries that the organization feels comfortable with and can manage.

The key to lasting change

In many respects, the current round of technological change isn’t really a technology story at all: it’s about anticipating and understanding employee concerns. Above all, collaboration is the key to building support for emerging technology from within, easing automation anxiety by proving to employees that change can be for the better.

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