The word “revolution” gets thrown about a fair bit at present (not least by me…) when discussing the new wave of automation technologies which are transforming the way organizations do business. But are we talking about “revolution” or “evolution” – sudden and dramatic, or gradual change? Well, it’s a bit of both: the technology itself is evolving. We can trace, for example, the evolution of IBM Watson back to the Deep Blue chess computer which beat Gary Kasparov back in the mid ‘90s...which can in turn be seen to have evolved from its predecessor Deep Thought...which itself was a successor to ChipTest (developed in the 1980s at Carnegie Mellon University)...and so on, back to Turing and beyond. While there have been revolutionary moments along this path – the transistor, the integrated circuit etc. – it’s clear that this is an evolutionary sequence, at a pace which may seem very far from “gradual” to those who’ve been alive to observe it but which, nevertheless, consists of successive advances built upon what’s gone before.
However, the impact of this evolution upon work and society is certainly revolutionary – in the same way that, for instance, the smartphone may have been the result of technological evolution but its impact upon our daily lives has been a revolutionary one. We are seeing – over the course of a relatively very short period – the advent of technologies which promise (or threaten, depending on one’s perspective) to take out of human hands huge swathes of work – both front- and back-office – which currently employ millions of people around the world. Looked at another way, technology is in the process of a radical transformation of organizations' cost-bases and potentially offer an unparalleled increase in productivity and quality. The phrase “automation revolution” doesn’t refer so much to the development of the automation technologies themselves as to their ramifications: the revolution is taking place on a social and organizational level rather than a technological one (though it’s worth pointing out that we may also be on the brink of a technological revolution too, in the form of quantum computing – but that’s another story altogether).
Does this distinction matter? Isn’t it just semantics? Well, to a point, no – it’s happening anyway, regardless of what we call it. However, I think it’s significant because of the way we tend to respond differently to different types of change. Evolution happens all the time, in the natural world of course but also in social terms. If we look at how the world has changed since, say, the Second World War (well within living memory) we can see that there have been titanic changes impacting almost every corner of our lives. Yet these changes did not happen overnight, and while life in the developed world is radically different in 2017 from how it was in 1945, people have had 72 years to get accustomed to all the myriad distinct aspects of that transformation...we didn’t wake up one day to find the analog age of steam trains, propeller planes and rotary dial phones replaced by today’s digital whirlwind.
Revolution, on the other hand, tends to be much more chaotic, and much more difficult to deal with peacefully. Look at the great revolutions of history and they tend to be extremely sanguinary affairs – partly because people caught up in them don’t have the luxury of a protracted acclimatization process. Action is required now - this instant – and often this means acting without being able to think through the long-term consequences of such action. I feel there is a danger of this being the case with the automation revolution – not only on a social level but within organizations too: might we not be caught up in our own whirlwind and have events and decisions forced upon us which we don’t have time – either as individuals or organizations – to think through properly; reacting, rather than acting? And as a result are we not in danger of taking the wrong paths simply out of a fear of being left behind by the inexorable march of history?
Jamie Liddell is the Editor-in-Chief of Outsource. He is a journalist with extensive B2B and consumer experience, particularly in the sourcing and international property sectors. A graduate of Cambridge University, Jamie worked as Chief Foreign Correspondent for property media company Blendon Communications before moving into full-time B2B journalism as launch editor of the Shared Services & Outsourcing Network. He took over the helm of the Outsource brand in April 2010 and has since overseen its transformation and evolution into the world's leading publication focusing on the sourcing, outsourcing and business transformation space.