Where Will Automation Take Us

When I read about automation, which I do very often nowadays, I feel it’s bringing another industrial revolution which will change everything in professional landscape beyond recognition all in a few years’ time. Many of the existing roles across industries will be automated with technology replacing humans. Those that remain human-dependent will transform beyond recognition. Companies are reacting to it through adoption and adjustment. They are embracing automation on one hand and trying to figure out how best to use their existing workforce in this new emerging order. Neither is without its challenges.

Automation will invade roles of varied kinds across industries rendering most of them redundant. Is it possible to reskill/upskill everyone whose role will be made obsolete by automation?  You can’t reskill someone in anything you want; each resource has certain limitations defined by aptitude/education etc.

That leaves us with one question: what kind of roles are endangered? A short answer is roles involving tasks/activities that are simple and repetitive. But a bigger concern is how simple is simple and repetitive, repetitive. HDFC, for example, is automating loan-underwriting, an activity highly regarded in banking.

Additionally, in any role there are activities that are simple and repetitive – if you only automate those parts and leave the other parts, in a role, to be performed by humans, then you will leave employees partially underemployed leaving the organization to pay for their downtime neutralizing the cost benefit automation was expected to bring to the organization.

Among all industries facing this challenge, it is IT which is making the biggest noise – because automation may have caused disruption to other industries, but IT is faced with an existential threat: automation can throw its entire business model into disarray.

In its roughly two and half decades of existence, majority of the Indian IT industry’s workforce has been involved in low-end volume oriented work outsourced from the West and very little or nothing in terms of innovation or research and development based work. Although this is particularly true when it comes to services, the product part of the industry is not much better. The Indian bellwethers, like Infosys, Wipro and TCS have subsisted on this outsourcing model for so long.

And as a result, the industry is infested with roles involving activities that are simple and repetitive. Skills to handle volume based work are lauded here and simple renovations are passed off as innovations. The industry has produced an army of workers who almost no nothing outside nuts and bolts and quick fixes required to keep an IT infrastructure going and have very little skills to survive outside this ecosystem.

The product part of IT is also threatened but in slightly different ways. Basic coding – the main stock in trade of the software companies – is one of the things that will be made obsolete by automation. Product/application consumption and maintenance habits are also changing. Applications residing on cloud is a point in case.

So where are we headed?

My guess is the behemoths will try to negotiate the storm by doing several things: offloading workforces, reskilling where possible, investing in technologies and acquiring new startups (attempting to monopolize innovation in the process). Startups that manage to survive the predatory attempts of the biggies and remain afloat will occupy a huge market space and they will be among equal employers in Indian IT (and also in other sectors). In short, they will script a new IT story. And given the rising protectionism in geopolitics, it mayn’t be one of handling low end outsourced work from the US and Europe.

But every day when I read my fill of business news I feel we won’t get there without considerable pain.