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Brainstorm: Putting people at the centre of automation

By Johan Steyn, February 2023

Automating jobs performed by people has been a hot topic for many decades. With the increase in computing power and the abilities of cognitive technology platforms, it has become easier for algorithms to read, process and execute much of the work performed by human operators.

Robotic process automation is not new, and many enterprises worldwide have invested in such platforms. These days, there’s much talk of intelligent or hyperautomation, where a cocktail of technologies is deployed to increase the speed and accuracy of operational tasks. Here one can think of sensor data, machine learning, automated decision-making and hyper-personalisation.

However, notwithstanding the ever-increasing power of these platforms, it’s estimated that 30% to 50% of automation initiatives globally fail to deliver the anticipated results. The main reason for these failures, in my view, is that automation is normally approached as a technology-only initiative. The planning is often conducted by the technology department in isolation from business, and the role and value of people are not considered at all.

I often ask my customers why they want to automate. What is the end goal? What is the definition of success? Many haven’t thought this through. Their goals are set by the number of processes to be automated and the ROI is measured by the number of people who will be discarded.

Worker bees

Legitimate reasons for automation include better customer service, lower operational costs and increased speed to market. The ultimate goal of automation is to relieve human workers from having to do low-value, repetitive tasks, and to free them up to do the work that only humans can do.

Menial, repetitive and lower-value work done by humans will not disappear. Some people can only do that kind of work and some may only want to do it. We need the worker bees in our businesses, but the challenge around automation and its impact on such people will remain a delicate issue.

What are business leaders to do in their quest for automation? Always start with people, and take them on the automation journey with you. My advice would be to think about the technology later. If your goal is to improve the quality of work performed by your staff, if your priority is around the importance of people and if you believe that there is experience, wisdom and empathy in your team, then you will start by automating the right things.

The topic of automation has particular relevance to South Africa. Given our high rate of unemployment and the fact that many wage earners often look after extended family members, I believe we need to give the topic careful and ethical consideration. We have a difficult balancing act: a rapid increase in job creation on the one hand, and on the other, embracing smart technology and automation to increase our competitiveness on the global stage.

Automation initiatives should be human-centred. Let the robots do what they do best, and set your people free to focus on the high-value tasks that only humans can perform. Remember to consider those who prefer to perform the tasks that are easily automated, and plan their future roles in a collaborative and ethical manner. Avoid automating things that will add little value and involve those whose jobs will be affected from the very start.

Rated as one of the top 50 global voices on AI by Swiss Cognitive, Prof. Johan Steyn is a member of the faculty of Woxsen University, a research fellow with Stellenbosch University and the founder of


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