The hidden losses: Unproductive tasks and the promise of automation

The statistics show just how much time and resource is wasted on unproductive tasks. But what are the unintended consequences of automation?

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IBM

Recently Samanage, a vendor that offers an enterprise service management platform, released the results of a survey that looked into the use of technology within organizations and specifically how impactful technology is on organizational productivity.

The survey, fielded to nearly 3,000 U.S. working adults, found that workers spend an average of 520 hours a year -- more than one full day’s work each week -- on repetitive services and tasks that could be easily automated. This includes things like password reset requests, new employee onboarding, contract review and approval, and office supply requests, to name a few.

Samanage calculated that based on the average national hourly wage of $25.39 this translates to businesses losing $13,202.80 a year, per employee, on unproductive tasks. With a U.S. labor force of more than 140 million, this totals a collective loss of $1.8 trillion annually.

Some other findings of note from the survey:

  • Generation X (age 35-54) is the largest group using technology at work. While many may think millennials are using they most tech, they actually aren’t.
  • One in four workers thinks their company’s technology and policies hurt their work productivity (25.4%). Young millennials are the biggest group to believe that technology and policies at work impede productivity (30.9%), with baby boomers coming in second.
  • More than one in three employees (36.8%) believe their company’s technology is outdated and nearly 40% of millennials believe their company’s technology is outdated. One in five workers (18.2%) admitted to downloading and using an application without their IT department’s knowledge.
  • Survey respondents indicated that automating non-essential tasks (20.2%), having access to a more mobile-friendly device (12.2%) and using cloud-based apps to access work documents (9.5%) would help increase productivity at work.

And, at the end of the day, the conclusion the survey authors come to is that applying technology to automate formerly manual tasks is the panacea for all ills:

"The findings clearly show that workers want to change in the workplace. IT policies and access to smarter technology not only allow for automation of non-essential tasks, but for individual improvement in productivity,” said Randy Drawas, chief marketing officer of Samanage. “Outdated, unproductive technology is burdening U.S. businesses and hurting their employees. In order to create a better work life, organizations need to adopt modern technologies that allow them to streamline their internal operations and provide collaborative, easy-to-use technologies that enable employees to spend more time on meaningful and impactful tasks, and far less time on the repetitive and mundane.”

Yes, but...

The mantra of "automate all the processes" is an appealing one, and one which is heard, ad nauseum, from the Silicon Valley set. Taken in isolation, it's a valid conclusion to make, if there are inefficiencies in the system, using technology to remove them all is an attractive option. But it is an option that sadly ignores the unintended consequences of the approach.

It's a theme that I have written about previously, calling for a deeper discussion about the impacts of automation. In that case, it was in the context of ridesharing service Uber. Uber's CEO, Travis Kalanick has very openly discussed his ambition of no longer needing those pesky drivers and instead relying on autonomous vehicles for the service. That makes sense from an efficiency perspective, but raises questions. As I asked, only partially rhetorically, in my previous post:

Simply put, is it preferable to have a degree of inefficiency in the system that allows for those who can't be graphic designers or computer engineers to still do something worthwhile. Or alternatively, should we make everything as efficient as possible without a thought about the human consequences.

So in the abstract, this survey, and its findings, make perfect sense. But when overlaid onto a view of society that includes the reality for so-called "low-skill" workers, the situation changes. And that's something we need to continuously bear in mind.

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