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BPESA: Tsunami Warning: Intelligent Automation and the Digital Workforce

By Johan Steyn, March 2021

Published by Business Process Enabling South Africa (BPESA):

It happens without warning out of sight deep under the ocean. It happens without our permission – whether we want it to happen or not – and it has the potential to destroy life at an unimaginable scale. Many of us remember the horrifying television coverage of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami caused by an undersea megathrust earthquake.

We remember the 2011 tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, causing level 7 meltdowns at three reactors. We collectively held our breath, fearing another Chernobyl disaster.

You may wonder why I start an article on Intelligent Automation and the Digital Workforce with reference to tsunamis. Will I be painting a bleak picture of the future, an indication that humanity’s fate is sealed due to advances in technology and automation? Will this wave of autonomous technology sweep over us like that caused by a colossal earthquake under the oceans? My answer is yes, and no.

Technological advance is in a sense like a tsunami: it is happening whether we want it to or not, it is happening faster than we can imagine, and it is often happening out of sight and without our awareness, only to announce itself by rapidly and forcefully changing the world we work and live in. On the other hand, these advances are like water tamed by humans to produce power. We use water to serve us and to make our lives better.

Will current and future technology destroy or serve us? We still have time to make the right business, societal and investment decisions to steer the rising wave in a direction that will benefit our species.

The concept of automation is certainly not a new one. The term automation was first coined in the automobile industry around 1946 to describe the increased use of automatic devices and controls in mechanised production lines. These days automation is infused in our daily lives: from the appliances we use at home, the applications on our mobile phones, the way we produce goods and services, the aeroplanes we fly and the things that entertain us.

Up to now, we have automated the “things”, but we are entering a world where the “things” will automate themselves. We hear terms like digital automation, autonomous automation, and hyper-automation. We read about potential job losses and employment implications. We think about our children’s education, and we wonder if current secondary and tertiary educational institutions are providing adequate learning and skills for a very uncertain future.

This topic is very relevant to society in South Africa. To become increasingly relevant in a globalised world and compete with other nations, we have no choice but to follow the path to intelligent automation in all aspects of economic life. But in a world where economies have been severely affected by the global pandemic and in a country where unemployment is a growing clear and present danger to our future, we have a tough balancing act to follow.

We need better guidance and legislation from our government. We need a mature approach from large and small businesses alike. I think we can work together to achieve efficiencies and operational cost reduction through intelligent automation and, at the same time, upskills our labour force. I admit that this is perhaps a bit naïve and most likely not achievable. But we have to think about this, and we have to work together.


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