INTERNATIONAL - The World Economic Forum predicts that five million jobs will be lost by 2020 as the Fourth Industrial Revolution continues to transform labour markets.
Many of the casualties will be repetitive manufacturing and mining tasks and those considered dangerous for humans to perform, but white-collar jobs in banks and other services industries are also under threat.
Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) can do these jobs faster and with greater precision than humans could ever hope to, leading to higher productivity and lower costs - the Holy Grail of business.
A study by Citi and the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford suggests that two-thirds of jobs in South Africa are at risk of being replaced by robots.
We’re already seeing South African financial services institutions such as Rand Merchant Bank and Nedbank replace thousands of hours of human labour with robotic process automation, a form of intelligent software automation.
As these jobs disappear, we’ll need to manage the transition to a new world carefully, especially in a country such as South Africa, with its rampant unemployment.
The good news is that robotics and AI, like every tech revolution before them, will create new and higher-paid jobs.
We’ll still need humans to operate these machines, to programme them and tell them what to do, after all. And the productivity gains they create could be harnessed for the benefit of all.
We’ll need humans to create bigger, better robots and to make sense of the data the machines churn out.
The organisation of the future can’t operate without humans.
Rather, it will be a safer, more efficient space where machines and AI augment the abilities and skills of humans, to increase output and reduce human error and injury.
But where does that leave the rest of us who didn’t study robotics and don’t know how to code software?
Ironically, we’re being forced to be more human, to embrace the skills and attributes that robots can’t yet replicate or do better than us.
As more robots enter the workplace, we’ll crave face-to-face interaction, authenticity and human connection more than ever.
While we leave the repetitive, time-consuming back-office and shop-floor tasks to the machines, we’ll be gifted with more time to focus on what’s becoming key for every industry: the customer experience and human interaction.
Managers will have more time to interact with team members. Colleagues will have more time to speak to customers and really understand their needs.
Human resources will have more time to focus on upskilling team members rather than spending hours on on-boarding and payroll. And when we understand and can relate to each other better, we come up with new solutions, new products and better ways of doing things. We create and innovate.
This means that skills such as communication, emotional intelligence, strategy, people management, stakeholder interactions, leadership, creativity, entrepreneurship, analysis and decision-making will become more in demand, across all industries.
We all have a role to play in making the future of work, well, work.
Organisations will need to adopt a culture of learning and upskilling. People in low-skilled or non-customer-facing positions will need to be taught how to be creative, innovative and entrepreneurial.
The onus will be on organisations to share their knowledge.
And the onus will be on us, as individuals, to grab every opportunity we can to learn and develop our skills.
Freedom to choose is another trait the machines can’t take from us - and we all need to choose to be proactive, to seek out free online learning, to make ourselves indispensable.
The reality is that automation is going to impact every job in some way. Impact, not replace. That impact will be the ability to do our jobs better and faster, taking away the growing epidemic of "busyness" and giving us more time to be more human. More time to grow and to find that elusive work-life balance.
And if that’s the trade-off, then I’m all for it.
Matthew Kibby is the vice-president, Enterprise, Africa & Middle East at Sage.
The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
- BUSINESS REPORT