Automation is unavoidable: A guide for SMEs

Nearly 1 in 5 Singaporeans fear losing their jobs to automation1, according to a recent Automation and Retraining survey by recruitment firm Randstad. With automation reshaping industries as we move deeper into the digital age, this fear is both logical and expected.

The replacement of human workers by robots, however,has been a contentious subject across a broad range of industries and service sectors, as artificial intelligence (AI) breakthroughs continue to gather pace. While many take a “doom and gloom” approach to these advances, my view is that new technology such as AI, robotics and processes such as automation should be embraced, not feared.

According to a 2016 World Economic Forum survey2, an estimated 1.6 million manufacturing and production jobs will be replaced globally due to automation between 2015 and 2020. If deployed correctly, AI has already been proven to boost productivity; create new employment opportunities for digital skills, and enable human talent to flourish.

The National Research Foundation (NRF) has also indicated its investment of up to S$150 million into a new national programme aimed at boosting Singapore’s artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities3 over the next five years. The debate then, should not be on whether we embrace this next Industrial Revolution: it is inevitably coming just as the steam engine, the automobile and mass production assembly line, and client-server computing did before it. The question will be how we prepare the workforce for its arrival.

Leaders must now equip their staff with the digital tools and expertise to keep pace with these technological advances. Employees are looking to their employers to demonstrate responsible and responsive leadership. However, SMEs need not panic. Here are some steps they could take:

Invest in digital experiences

The key to achieving skills for the new business era is for employers to invest in transformation programmes that offer workers exciting and engaging digital experiences. While businesses focus on improving customer experience and making UX seamless4, an often neglected area is making the employees’ digital experience seamless as well.

A digital workplace can improve employee focus and boost productivity by establishing new leadership targets and methods of measuring employee performance. Team collaboration tools are a great example: by merely simplifying communication and digital processes with new chat-based tools, we can use this technology to improve workplace productivity.

In addition, we should treat this as an opportunity to establish a nationwide transformation programme to re-skill and up-skill existing workers and create new training and apprenticeship schemes.

Support employees throughout transformation

Singapore is presently experiencing a digital skills crisis, according to a SMU and JP Morgan study. This issue is not just rooted in manufacturing and service related jobs however, as white collar and professional services jobs are vulnerable to replacement by automation too. Action is needed across the Singapore economy to address the risks emanating from this digital deficit that threatens to deplete both our national productivity and competitiveness.

Singaporean SMEs must treat this digital skills deficit and the new wave of machines as a clear call to action to invest more in and provide better training for digital skills at all levels of education. By focusing on providing employees with the relevant digital skills this will both guard against job losses and strengthen workers’ digital skills for success in jobs of the future.

Fortunately, 72 percent of Singaporean employees are happy to retrain to take up new skills as long as they are paid the same wage, according to Randstad’s survey. It is critical that companies provide employees with the support they need to navigate any new digital responsibilities in the workplace.

Innovation and the productivity gains of automation should be welcomed, not feared. It is the human race’s desire to innovate that has compelled us to strive to better the advances made by previous generations. This wave of automation is no different. Let’s face it head on and seize the opportunities to better ourselves too.

- Darric Hor, ASEAN Regional Director, BMC Software -

References: 1 2 3 4