How we innovate matters

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Though this column is called Ethical Innovation, it is fair to say that, to date, the focus has been more on innovation than ethics. I was reminded of this recently while in a technical briefing with a software vendor in which the following question was posed: “How many resources are required to execute that task—of course, that covers both humans and robots?” That is not terminology anyone would have used even 5 years ago. Indeed, many, if not most, organizations still like to use the term HR (human resources) even though many of those organizations are hell-bent on converting many human resources to robotic resources. It is a question that hits at the core of a long-standing but headlining ethical issue in the world of IT. For while the industry talks about little other than automation, it also claims that automation will not impact jobs; that somehow or other, pixie dust unicorns (presumably) will move displaced workers to newly created and far more rewarding work activities.

RPA vendors who have come into vogue in recent years are forthright in pushing the belief that their technology will not cut jobs. But there is a stark difference between what technology vendors and systems integrators say in confidence and what they say publicly. To be fair, technology vendors want to sell technology, more licenses, more subscriptions, and more services, and they highlight how technology can improve customer or employee experiences and make them more resilient to change or stimulate innovation. But the truth of the matter is that virtually every vendor or system integrator I speak to tells me the same story. Cutting costs (people) is the number-one priority for their customers. Actually saying aloud that the purpose of automation is to automate is considered shocking and controversial—which makes me think of a quote by Noel Coward: “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”

Those signing the checks for multimillion-dollar digital transformations may be virtually comforted by the promotion of the story: that what they are doing improves service levels and creates more modern and sustainable businesses. But the employees impacted by such “transformation” will not be so easily fooled. Just as nobody was fooled by the same arguments used to justify offshoring and outsourcing business processes, neither should they be misled by the furious energy behind automation, be it in the form of RPA or even AI. The motivation is all too often simple: to cut costs, to use, and to pay fewer people to do the work. This is not a call to destroy the machines, a call out to neo-Luddites. Instead, it’s a call for honesty. Honesty rather than deceit has a better chance of success in the long run.

History repeats

Though there isn’t the space necessary here to go into detail, I witnessed firms implementing ERP systems in the early 2000s that laid off thousands of staff, only to beg many of the staff to return months later. I have seen (and personally been involved in) outsourcing entire operations overseas that did nothing more than deliver a short-term boost to the balance sheet and a long-term decline. Once again, we are witnessing wholescale automation that works well for a few months, but then the quirks, exceptions, and organic nature of business take revenge, and the short-term gains are lost, leaving in their wake more problems than before.

IT projects, particularly enterprise information and automation projects, seldom fail because of the technology. They fail due to poor planning, poor change management, and, sadly, due to a lack of honesty upfront about the project’s true nature. If you are not honest about it, then don’t expect your workers, processes, and business activities to go along without a fight or at least an attempt to make your work as tricky as they can. The flip side to all this is that automation and innovation in technology can be used ethically to cut overspending, innovate, improve services, remove bottlenecks, lower exception rates, and increase accuracy. But when it is used as a blunt instrument, it seldom works or saves money in the long run.

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