Will digital transformation really lead to a ‘jobocalypse’?

Technology is here to enhance jobs, not replace them, enabling the automation of repetitive processes so humans can focus on other tasks, says Dr Zeynep Hizir

Will digital transformation really lead to a ‘jobocalypse’?

In the wake of the Covid pandemic, businesses of all shapes and sizes have been forced to adapt, adjust and pivot in response to the ‘new normal’. For many companies experiencing financial strain and uncertainty, improving efficiencies and reducing costs has subsequently become a key priority. 

Whereas businesses may have traditionally undertaken restructuring or redundancies as a means of cutting costs, today a new wave of businesses is embracing (or accelerating previous pre-pandemic plans to embrace) digital transformation.

What exactly do we mean by digital transformation? Digital transformation, often referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, can be defined as the replacement of manual processes with digitised processes. At its heart, the process involves implementing specialist technologies that ‘digitalise’ operations, in turn optimising them and making them far more efficient. 

This enables money to be saved, employee experience to be enhanced, risk to be reduced, resources to be redeployed and processes to be streamlined – so businesses can work smarter and faster. 

Over the last decade, industries ranging from chocolate manufacturing to asset management have begun their digital transformation journeys, with a wide range of business functions – such as customer service, risk calculation and data processing – transformed through technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotic process automation (RPA), machine learning (ML) and intelligent automation (IA). Indeed, HR itself has been one area disrupted by automation, including in the areas of employee selection and onboarding. 

From an HR perspective, the digital transformation process has a considerable impact on jobs, skills and company culture, and in many different ways. There remain, however, huge misconceptions within workforces around digital transformation and automation – most notably, that ‘the robots are taking over’ and that jobs will simply become redundant. This doomsday scenario is often referred to as the ‘jobocalypse’.

The reality, however, is that technology tools within digital transformation such as RPA aim to automate repetitive, manual, mundane high-volume tasks that do not require expertise but take up valuable employee time – freeing up people to focus on tasks that require human interaction, or the expertise of a highly trained employee. 

Given RPA cannot function or be configured without human intelligence, it has not yet been a source of unemployment. On the contrary, evidence shows a technology gap in skilled employees. The technology is there to enhance, not to replace. 

As a recent government committee report concluded: “The evidence we have heard does not suggest that new technology will lead to mass displacement of workers: instead, it is likely to lead to the creation of new jobs alongside the loss of others. Automation may also result in the transformation rather than the loss of existing jobs.” 

So while digital transformation does mean some jobs become obsolete, this, in turn, actually leads to more jobs, albeit of a different type, being created. This means a happier, better skilled and more fulfilled workforce – not the mass redundancies or replacement many workers may fear.  

Change, of course, is no mean feat, and is as much about company culture as it is about people. When it comes to the ‘people’ aspect of digital transformation, a positive culture and mindset are vital, as well as ongoing investment into the right people. Upskilling and reskilling staff so that they are trained and savvy in digital transformation software and methods is crucial, as is buy-in to a ‘go digital’ culture.

Regarding implementation, there are five key stages to successfully implementing digital transformation which HR change makers should base a programme of transformation around. Known as the ADKAR model, the five stages are: awareness; desire; knowledge; ability and reinforcement. 

In essence, these stages involve effectively communicating why digital transformation is necessary, having a desire to undertake transformation, knowing how a digital transformation strategy can be implemented, having the right and able people to implement this strategy and ongoing reinforcement through culture and investment are the keys.

Future proofing is not a gimmick, luxury or fad – it is essential to sustainability and growth, and the reality is that digital transformation has become a central aspect of future proofing in any industry. Ultimately, those companies that fail to digitally transform will be left behind, from a technological, financial and business culture perspective. As the key drivers of personnel and culture change, HR managers and practitioners are therefore already at the heart of the fourth industrial revolution. 

Dr Zeynep Hizir is a digital transformation expert and head of strategic solutions development, insurance EMEA at SS&C Technologies