Intelligent Automation and the Rise of Strategic IT

Aaron Oshita

June 13, 2020 | min

Imagine, you spent decades building your career in one of the hottest fields in the workforce. You’ve invested your heart and soul in perfecting your craft, building technology infrastructure so your business can operate properly and delight your end customers. You’re highly respected and enjoying the stability of a massive and powerful organization.

Then, one day, it all changes.

In December of 2019, global investment bank, Morgan Stanley laid off 1,500 workers, including many of its senior technology staff, as a part of a restructuring effort despite strong financial performance the previous quarter. Many that were shown the door had been with the company for decades. Several months later, these technologists find themselves in a shifted job market where skill sets that didn’t exist 20 to 30 years ago, are now the keys to finding work in their own field. Frequent outsourcing and rising demand for cloud computing, DevOps and digital transformation skills are making it difficult for these veterans to find their next opportunity.

This is not an isolated case, nor is it exclusive to the banking industry. Companies of all shapes, sizes, and verticals are undergoing drastic transformations. From adapting to unprecedented macro economic changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to creating more cost-effective operations for existing functions, businesses are rapidly adopting new technology that enables a key factor of our working future — intelligent automation.

Our Jobs are Doomed, Aren't They?

Research shows that 45% of current tasks could be automated with the technology we have today. We’ve seen the impact of industrial robotics on manufacturing jobs in recent history with around 670,000 US jobs eliminated between 1990 and 2007. Furthermore, experts extrapolate that as many as 800 million jobs could be displaced by 2030 due to automation, including high-skilled jobs like IT. Compounding on this trend, the macro economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, will force companies to further expedite automation efforts to boost efficiency and save costs as they work to recover.

Panic Now? Hold on a Second…

While the restructuring of technologists at Morgan Stanley is a sobering example of this growing trend, the outlook of IT jobs isn’t as frightening as it sounds. In fact, automation could actually lead to more opportunities and faster career growth. Let’s recall the effects agricultural advancements had on industrialization as an example.

Before the industrial revolution in the mid 1800s, making a living in Europe commonly meant daily manual labor on a farm, often under intense working conditions. As farming technology began to advance, productivity increased, reducing the amount of manual labor required. This redirected many people to up-and-coming industrial jobs, sparking a cascade of economic growth over the next century. New industries emerged and new jobs were created.

Today, the agriculture industry is widely diversified. We have jobs like, agricultural operations manager, food scientist, agricultural engineer, agronomy sales manager, environmental engineer, biochemist, and agricultural economist. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, agricultural and food science jobs today are growing 7 times faster than traditional farming roles. These high-skilled roles also earn nearly 3 times more than traditional farming.

The key takeaway — past technology revolutions have allowed us to retool and refocus our most valuable human traits to jobs that drive wider impact. The IT industry will see a similar effect as we move deeper into this 4th industrial revolution.

Humans and Machines Reclaim Their Rightful Jobs

In 1913, Henry Ford demonstrated that thousands of hyper-specialized laborers strewn together in an assembly line could efficiently build an automobile. This operating model, however, would be too expensive and insufficient to meet modern business needs. Today, machines have reclaimed a large amount of manual labor, allowing businesses to achieve greater productivity at scale while reserving people for more strategic, innovative, and often, higher earning jobs.

Research by MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab demonstrated that, while automation decreases the cost of some tasks, the value of remaining tasks — which often require industry knowledge, creativity, empathy, or common-sense judgement — increases. According to the study, annual wages for computer and mathematics occupations requiring design skills and innovative thinking increased by over $6,000 on average over a 7-year period. This indicates not an elimination of jobs, but rather, a redistribution of tasks that comprise certain jobs, and the potential birth of new ones.

Bracing for the Rebalance

You can relax. Don’t worry, there will still be jobs. The question is, what will these jobs look like? And maybe the bigger question — will you be ready for the change? Despite skills development efforts from many organizations, IDC predicts a 30% worldwide deficit for cloud IT skills by 2022. Additionally, 70% of IT professionals are not confident that they have the skills needed in the next 3-5 years.

As the global talent pool contends with frequently evolving demand, a fundamental rebalancing between “human work” and “machine work” has already begun. IT is both the center of and the catalyst to this shift. IDC predicts intelligent automation will be a principle transformation pillar for 60% of enterprise IT organizations. Legacy systems will soon be succeeded by modernized technology platforms, taking a large portion of manual tasks “off IT’s plate.” “Future-proofing” will mean recasting your skill sets, building upon existing ones, and adopting new business-focused competencies such as design, strategy, and people management.

A Net Positive Outcome – Augmentation Not Obsolescence

It’s no secret that AI and cloud computing have already impacted IT. You may still be wondering if this will be a threat or an opportunity for your career. On one hand, some traditional IT skill sets may become less in-demand. On the other hand, building upon these skill sets puts you in a unique position to evolve and grow your career faster. Take for example, IT management operations. While many IT management tasks can be simplified and codified into automated playbooks, these encapsulated modules do not replace years of human experience and judgement involved in process efficiency. The machines that take over manual tasks will still need to be supervised, requiring higher-level strategic thinking and management skills.

More Automation, More Opportunity

A looming talent deficit, mixed with the right upskilling focus using modernized technology, becomes a perfect recipe for future-proofing your career and springboarding professional growth.

We should focus less on what AI will displace, and instead, emphasize the opportunities and new business value that will be unlocked. Technology advancements have historically created a net positive effect on job growth. Demand for new combinations of skill sets and knowledge will go on the rise. Advancement opportunities for higher impact jobs will rapidly open. The role of IT will expand as modernized infrastructure platforms minimize manual tasks and recreate traditional roles into a cohesive blend of business strategy and technology expertise.

The Frontline to the Future of Work

As businesses scramble to maintain continuity and recover from the economic fallout of COVID-19, your expertise will be crucial for shaping the future of work. From the datacenter to the frontline, the IT industry will find itself increasingly working side by side with business partners, solving new problems and building a more elastic work environment as businesses demand more agility and responsiveness to sudden change. We have reached an epoch — one that has permanently reshaped business as we know it. The world needs your skills today more than ever. Your opportunity to build a new digital future and lead the charge in our economic recovery begins now.

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