Automation will replace nine per cent of all US jobs this year, says Forrester Research. What changes should IT decision-makers and business leaders make to reap the benefits, rather than the whirlwind? Andrew Hobbs reports.

2018 will be the year of the automation arms race, according to a new Forrester report. The paper makes ten key predictions for the sector, and outlines how industry leaders can respond to the challenges that arise from them.

In recent years, companies have increasingly looked to automation to boost output, reduce inefficiencies, and cut labour costs. And as robotic systems and AI become faster, smarter, and more affordable, this trend can only grow.

While those who master automation may flourish, suggest the analysts, there will still be obstacles to overcome along the way.

Read more: South Korea most automated nation on earth, says report. The UK? Going nowhere

The evolving workforce

Perhaps the greatest of these is convincing the human workforce, and public, that automation will be a benefit.

Theoretically, robotics and AI will increasingly take on low-value, repetitive, replicable tasks, working alongside employees in administrative, sales, and service roles. However, with blue-collar positions likely to take a hit, HR and PR departments will have their work cut out to sell the benefits.

The report predicts that automation will replace nine percent of US jobs this year, offset slightly by a two percent growth in roles supporting the “automation economy”.

[This is supported by Internet of Business’ own research. When the US automotive sector purchased over 60,000 robots in 2016, it created 230,000 new human roles. As each robot can do the work of an estimated 15 people, this means that 230,000 new jobs were created as 900,000 roles were automated.]

The burden will be on business leaders to draw up strategic workforce plans that will accommodate the new roles that automation creates or requires – and those that it eliminates.

However, these staffing shifts won’t happen overnight; the analysts suggest a five-to-ten-year process. So it’s vital that companies map out a transition strategy, while allowing for flexibility as technology evolves. This will help to mitigate negative impacts on the workforce, says Forrester.

But the transition won’t always be smooth, warns the company. As automation becomes more overt, political backlashes will be inevitable.

In 2017, 65 percent of Americans believed that other industries would suffer because of automation, but that theirs would be unaffected. The reality is that nearly all sectors will see increased automation of one sort or another.

As this realisation dawns, the shift to automation may falter, suggests Forrester, but the broader economic arguments in favour of it will eventually win out. No government will want to be outdone by more productive and more innovative neighbours, says the report.

Infrastructure as code

Automation is also set to revamp the software side of the equation. RPA (robotic process automation) is the practice of using AI workers to carry out tasks that have traditionally been done by employees, across a range of legacy programs.

“In 2018, RPA-based digital workers will replace and/or augment 311,000 office and administrative positions, and 260,000 sales and related positions,” says the report. “As a result, the RPA software market will remain heated, and double to $1.06 billion by the end of 2018.”

The use of RPA, alongside robots, cobots, and collaboration tools, is also enabling faster ops decisions.

Infrastructure-as-code will find its way into the mainstream. Having matured to the point where it can handle critical functions, software-defined storage and compute processes are on the rise in 2018. This is thanks to the ease of managing software-defined infrastructures safely, reliably, and at scale.

Internet of Business says

The deployment of automated processes is accelerating as rapidly as the technology is advancing. Meanwhile AI – and increasingly software-based workflows – will enable even faster tech rollouts. However, as the race to automate begins anew, it’s important to consider the risks alongside the rewards, and to have a clear business strategy in place before looking for supportive technologies.

When drawing up technology roadmaps, it’s vital  to consider the defining principles of the enterprise and how any changes might affect its ethos. And while automation will play a central role in many organisations, employees define many of those enterprises, so it’s essential to manage internal changes well to avoid sabotaging the organisation’s own values.

Government policy will have to change to support both the rights of workers and citizens’ ability to remain economically active – without stunting the opportunities that come with automation. The often-lacklustre pace of reform in Westminster and Washington will be tested, even as companies champ at the bit of opportunity.

Similarly, the security risks that come with developing ever-more connected and software-based workflows are potentially huge. Significant investment is needed to support IT teams in implementing new processes.

Unfortunately, balance is something often lost in the hype cycle and the whirlwind of disruption, and it’s important to maintain a sense of realism in line with long-term strategic goals. That said, all organisations should be prepared to be bold. As Sean Culey says in his excellent, forward-looking report on PAL value chains and the IoT, if you don’t reinvent your business, someone else will.