Automation and Our Profession – Are You Prepared?

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By laying the groundwork now, you’ll easily be able to adapt to any technology that arrives in the workplace explains Marie Herman

The idea that robots and artificial intelligence software are taking over our jobs and eliminating the need for humans seems like something out of the movies, doesn’t it? It’s been a fear of humans ever since the first science fiction books and television shows came out showcasing robots.

In 1957, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn starred in a movie called Desk Set, a story about a reference library at a company that is rolling out mainframe computers. The employees leap to the conclusion that their jobs are going to be replaced by the technology. By the end of the movie, it is revealed that there are no job losses and that in fact the workload is going to increase due to a planned merger. The computer will be able to offload some of the lower level tedious tasks. Happy ending all around, right?

Fast forward to today. We still have the same fears of our jobs being replaced by technology, don’t we? And that fear is growing as we see the tasks computers can perform. If you are not paying attention, you will likely receive a rude awakening within the next decade.

You only need to look at the newly released Amazon Alexa for Business (https://aws.amazon.com/alexaforbusiness/) to see what’s available right now and the likely direction for the future. This text is directly from Amazon’s website:

“Today, people spend too much of their day on tedious tasks at work, like managing their calendars, dialing in to meetings, or searching for information. But Amazon Alexa can help solve this problem by acting as an intelligent assistant at work. Alexa lets people use their voice to interact with technology, so they can spontaneously ask questions in a way that feels natural. Alexa can help people take care of these tasks just by asking. Alexa can help people stay organized and focused on the things that matter, whether they are working in their office or at home. Alexa can simplify conference rooms, allowing meeting attendees to start meetings and control the equipment in the room by simply using their voice. Alexa can also do things around the workplace, like providing directions to a conference room, notifying IT about a broken printer, or placing an order for office supplies.”

How’s that for a target on the back of administrative professionals?

Microsoft Cortana was created by Microsoft employees sitting down with personal and executive assistants to figure out what they do and how they do it, and then attempting to replicate some of those processes with the software.

Look at Amy. Who is she? She is the artificial intelligence software persona (https://x.ai/) that is available right now for scheduling meetings with no human intervention required. She even has her own LinkedIn profile (https://www.linkedin.com/in/amyingramnyc/). You know how when your boss wants you to schedule a meeting they just copy you with an email and ask you to set it up? The artificial intelligence (AI) works EXACTLY the same way. The boss would cc: the AI software email address. The AI would then check the boss’s calendar, contact the other meeting attendees by email, offer multiple open appointment times, offer alternatives if the people respond that they can’t make certain days/times and send confirmations once decided. The recipients don’t even realize they are conversing with a computer. And if the boss decides to go on vacation, an email gets sent to Amy asking her to clear the calendar and she will reschedule every appointment for those dates – all with automated software. It exists now. And the price? Only $17 US per month.

How much of your job is spent on calendar management? Do you really believe it is safe from this type of automation?

But wait, there’s more.

How about administrative responsibilities? The software exists now for you to just verbally ask for an item to be added to your to do list, but it’s developing to where the software can help you prioritize the tasks and give recommendations for working more strategically. It can also generate reminders, so tasks don’t get lost. In fact, the technology exists to read your emails in the background as you send them and have the software automatically create reminders for tasks you have committed to doing in your email messages.

There are companies out there with software either already developed or in process to do even more of our tasks, from travel management (creation of automatic itineraries by pulling information from emails received in your email box and including tourism ideas for the city you are going to), expense report processing (just scan the receipts and everything else is automated, including approval workflows), human resource tasks (such as automating the employee onboarding process), meeting support (dim lights, turn on projector, dial into conference automatically, enter participant number, and notify individual that the meeting is ready, as well as being able to record and transcribe minutes) and more.

Clearly, this technology will be growing as it becomes more widely accepted and less expensive. It’s just a matter of how long it takes to get there. Companies will reach a point where they must incorporate this technology as their competitors do, or be left behind. And, as they see more of what it can do, they will want to bring it onsite.

As these digital virtual assistants become more widely rolled out, their cross-location functionalism will increase. The idea is that you will wake up in the morning, ask Cortana or Alexa what your schedule is, ask it to remind you to do something when you go to work, have that reminder waiting on your computer when you get to work (and vice versa). People will be “trained” to turn to Alexa or Cortana and it will be an easy integration to using it for other requests over time.

Alexa can recognize up to ten voices (once trained) and modify its responses depending on who is speaking. If you tell it to call your spouse, it calls your spouse, versus Jane’s spouse when Jane makes the request.

Now, that’s not to say there will be zero jobs left for humans after artificial intelligence kicks in. But you can certainly expect jobs to evolve and consolidate.

It’s kind of scary when you see what is already out there on the internet, isn’t it? But facing this scenario head-on gives us the chance to up our game and be ready for what is coming.

Someone is going to have to design, build, and install those systems, train the operators, and maintain them. You may not be planning to switch over to the engineering field anytime soon, but that’s the thought process you should be following in thinking about the future. What kind of support will be needed with artificial intelligence?

What won’t be needed anymore? Look around now and see what is already replacing humans in jobs. Amazon has launched a test store called Amazon Go – a grocery store with no cashiers. Is it perfect? No. Is it the future? Absolutely (for certain applications).

When fast food employees across the United States started pushing for a higher minimum wage requirement, the fast food companies pushed back, by installing computer kiosks for placing orders and rolling out online apps where customers could pre-order food. This greatly reduces the need for cashiers to take your orders or process payments.

Could the same thing happen to the administrative profession? Some individuals say, no way. They contribute too much value to their roles. While that may be true, it’s time to check your assumptions. Your job may involve a lot more lower-level responsibilities than you recognize.

Software developers are creating increasingly complex workflow scenarios where the artificial intelligence can complete a greater range of tasks. The artificial intelligence software is analyzing data, summarizing results, making recommendations, completing actions, and more. It can send emails and make phone calls with voices that are getting more natural sounding every day. Google recently tested a new AI voice and found people were unable to distinguish it from a human voice.

The real question becomes: what will our profession look like when it happens? How can we prepare and strategize so that we can embrace this process and use it to our advantage?

Do an analysis of your job and think about the tasks that you do, particularly what might be considered “mindless/routine” tasks. What tasks are most susceptible to being done by automation? What are the higher-level tasks that you are responsible for which are perhaps too nuanced for a computer to take over?

Think about where to go. Considering the type of work that will be available after the Artificial Intelligence revolution, what do you want to be doing? Envision your ideal job. What would your day look like? What would you do?

Do a gap analysis to identify what stands between you and that ideal job. What skills do you need to acquire? Are there any certifications that would give you an edge? Do you need to return to school for a degree?

Put together a proposal for your boss with your idea. Spell out the benefits to the company of you receiving training and developing your skills.

Develop those skills. You will need high level skills to stay ahead of the computer curve. If a task involves sitting at a computer and clicking OK, consider it gone.

Embrace the technology. Stay aware of it! As the old saying goes, keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. Use it to start freeing up your lower level tasks right now, so that you can free up your time to work on the higher-level and more interesting responsibilities.

There will be some areas where computers will free up our time to focus on higher level areas instead of replacing us. We need to embrace these opportunities. After all, who will companies lay off: employees who refuse to accept technology or the nimble and adaptable employees who use the technology to enhance their productivity and work output?

Developing higher level skills  – such as creating budgets; tasks that involve human interactions – such as discipline of employees; highly complex interactive tasks – such as event planning for larger scale events; are all examples of areas that would prove more challenging for a computer to replace us. However, parts of these projects do involve low level tasks that can be automated. Examples using our meeting planning project would be: mobile apps that include agendas and floorplans; processing registrations; mass communications to attendees; web page creation for the event; tracking attendance. Including these software solutions, where logical, can greatly reduce the workload of planning large scale events; saving you time, energy. and money, and allowing you to accomplish more with fewer resources.

With lower level redundant tasks getting replaced with AI, office workflows will be impacted. Workflow is a great example of an area where you could focus to be prepared for automation. Someone will need to figure out how to integrate artificial intelligence with existing systems; developing new policies, procedures, and systems for the integration, and identifying the new processes to follow. This is a skill that could increase in demand.

By researching what artificial intelligence already exists and then thinking about the likely future directions of the technology, you can better identify what areas of your job are most likely to be impacted the soonest. Integrating the technology yourself through championing of software, and training, in your office gives you the opportunity to be the office hero and show that you are looking out for the company’s time and money.

Stop and imagine your job with your most rote tasks removed from your plate. You get to spend your time on higher level tasks, that bring greater variety and challenge to your day. That sounds fun, doesn’t it (well unless the rote tasks were your favorite part of your job)? This doesn’t have to be a threat to our existence if we choose to think about how it can enrich our jobs.

How much of your job is actually left after you remove those rote tasks though? If it is less than 50% you need to recognize that your job could be a candidate for consolidation and elimination.

It’s likely that certification and education will be one of the most important elements you can incorporate into your strategic plan for your long-term career development.

It makes sense that tasks that involve a greater level of logic, critical thinking and planning skills are the type of tasks that will be harder to replicate by a computer. These skills get developed with advanced certifications and training and may take years to develop. They are also skillsets that companies will need at any time and which are likely to continue to be in demand in the future.

Start transitioning now to focusing more on those higher-level tasks. Put together the approach you will take to convince your company to expand your responsibilities. Plan it out now and start preparing for the automated future. Put yourself in the driver’s seat and take charge of your career, so you are prepared no matter what life throws at you in the future. By laying the groundwork now, you’ll easily be able to adapt to any technology that arrives in the workplace.

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About Author

Marie Herman

Marie Herman CAP-OM, ACS, MOSM operates a successful business, MRH Enterprises LLC (www.mrhenterprises.com), whose services include teaching computer and other classes in-person and via the internet, writing articles, and conducting workshops and other speaking engagements. She can be reached at [email protected] If you are interested in Marie training your assistants or speaking at your event, either virtually or in person, please email [email protected]

3 Comments

  1. Isabel Justel on

    Thanks for sharing! Fully agree, AI assistants are here to stay. Even if they need to improve very much, they will evolve exponentially. Best way to cope with them is to make them allies and evolve ourselves to roles with a high added value

  2. Fantastic article – it really aligns itself with our the company I work for and how we are positioning ourselves. We’ve recently launched a corporate event planning platform which automates the mundane legwork of event planning and management. We’re fairly new in market but the feedback we’ve received from EAs and PAs has been so encouraging and exciting. Technology is here to help us all become more efficient and have more of a voice within our profession and footprint within our respective industries.

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