With the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics on the up, depending on who you listen to, we’re either on the brink of an exciting new industrial revolution where technology does all the hard work and we just sit back and relax, or a dystopian nightmare where machines rule every aspect of our lives.
But how does this affect the role of business owner-managers? Is it possible that the daily activities and decisions involved in owning and running a business could be handled, or even done better, by machines? One of my clients is not only asking how much of their business could be automated (thereby reducing staff costs, eliminating errors, etc.), but also how much of their roles as owners could be done in a more efficient, automated way. And I think it’s a sensible question to ask.
By now we’re all used to reading about big brands like Adidas investing in automated factories or Tesla’s self-driving cars taking to our streets. So it’s no surprise that many jobs across lots of different industries are under threat from automation. In fact, one Oxford University study suggested that as many as 35% of jobs in the UK could be at risk of automation in the next 20 years. You may think this applies to low-skill jobs only, but automation is taking root in many professional roles across sectors as diverse as accounting, marketing, healthcare and architecture.
With AI getting smarter and more human-like, computers and robots are now handling a much wider range of tasks, far more efficiently and accurately than humans can – and some of this extends to leadership-type tasks. In finding and retaining talent, for example, algorithms can determine the candidate who’s the best fit for your organisation (without any of the biases that humans bring to the selection process). AI-based programs can also determine how happy your people are and identify when someone may be at risk of leaving the company. And it’s widely accepted that computers are far better at assessing risk than humans – that’s why AI is already being used to manage hedge funds. Even when it comes to providing a great service – that most human of tasks – natural language processing means chatbots can interact with employees, customers and suppliers to seamlessly answer questions and provide advice in real time.
On the flipside, some jobs have actually reversed the technology trend, and turned the tide back towards human workers. Automated carwashes, for instance, have largely been overtaken by businesses offering hand-washing. It’s the same with coffee. Machines can make a cup of coffee just as well as a human these days, yet the trend is towards artisan coffee shops with impressively moustached baristas. Both examples are relatively low-wage jobs that can be done quickly and easily by machines, and logic suggests these would be among the first to go. Yet, there are clearly times when we’re after a more low-tech, altogether more human and personal experience.
So, could a computer run your business better than you? Probably, at least when it comes to certain tasks around making decisions and assessing risk. Or perhaps there is scope to automate tasks that don’t play to your strengths, freeing up time for the activities that will really drive your business forward. It therefore makes sense to stay alert to opportunities to enhance your processes and decisions through technology. But, ultimately, it’s the business owner – not a machine – who decides how best to use technology. In the same way that teams need good leadership, technology needs a purpose, and that purpose should be decided by the business owner, in line with the unique needs of their business. Plus, no matter how far the technology progresses, a computer will never be able to match an owner’s passion for their business. Coming up with the business idea in the first place and deciding to take the plunge is a distinctly human activity, and, while human creativity can certainly be enhanced by automation, I don’t believe it can be completely replaced. All things considered, I suspect our existence as business owners is secure for a while yet…
If you’d like help planning for your business’s future, please do get in touch.