Automation leads to Forgetting

What is the limit of automation?  We often think that automation is limited by the technical ability to construct the automation.  It is not surprising that automation decreases the ability for those people to do the same job manually.   Is there then a point that we should avoid automation in order to retain viable knowledge workers?

I wrote in the past that we might need a ‘Business Crisis Inducer’ in order to exercise workers ability to handle crises.  I meant it half jokingly, but today I am writing about a new article by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic called “All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machine.”  He starts with examples from piloting airplanes:

Pilots today work inside what they call “glass cockpits.” … on a typical passenger flight, a human pilot holds the controls for a grand total of just three minutes. …  Overuse of automation erodes pilots’ expertise and dulls their reflexes, leading to what Jan Noyes, an ergonomics expert at Britain’s University of Bristol, terms “a de-skilling of the crew.”

Examples include a crash in Buffalo in 2009, the Air France flight lost over the Atlantic also in 2009.  He did not include the Asiana Airlines flight from Seoul which crashed on landing at San Francisco’s airport this year which was widely rumored to be caused by pilot complacency due to so much auto pilot usage, however later investigation showed a mechanical failure was probably the cause.

Automation is generally viewed as freeing up people for doing more important tasks.  He quotes Alfred North Whitehead saying:

Every time we off-load a job to a tool or a machine, we free ourselves to climb to a higher pursuit, one requiring greater dexterity, deeper intelligence, or a broader perspective.

Automation certainly frees us from that manual activity, and could provide some additional time for strategic thinking, however there is a fallacy in this known as “The Substitution Myth”:

 A labor-saving device doesn’t just provide a substitute for some isolated component of a job or other activity. It alters the character of the entire task, including the roles, attitudes, and skills of the people taking part.


There is no doubt in my mind that as the self driving car becomes more widely used, the ability for those people to handle a difficult driving situation will degrade.  Clearly pratice is necessary to maintain a skill, but this is saying much more:  Automation removes us from awareness of what is going on;  it reduces not only skill, but knowledge and expertise as well.

Automation turns us from actors into observers. Instead of manipulating the yoke, we watch the screen. That shift may make our lives easier, but it can also inhibit the development of expertise.

Expertise is the essence of a knowledge worker.  I derided Roger Martin a few weeks ago because he described knowledge workers as simply decision processors who take data in, regardless of the source, and produce decisions.  He ignored the tacit knowledge which forms expertise that is learned on the job.  It is precisely this tacit expertise that is affected by automation.

None of this is surprising.  We value the connection between leadership and the people being led for fear that the leader will get out of touch.  For example, we have always honored the general who is directly involved with the troops.  The CEO who spends time on the construction site with the workers.  Politicians are always dressing to show they are connected, for example George Bush’s Flight Suit stunt.  Leadership may be the knowledge workers that direct an organization, what we are seeing here is that the knowledge worker has the same relationship to the work which is automated.

I was half joking about the Business Crisis Inducer, however there is some merit in having something that degrades to manual activity on occasion:

You can program software to shift control back to human operators at frequent but irregular intervals; knowing that they may need to take command at any moment keeps people engaged, promoting situational awareness and learning.

Are we going to have BPM software that occasionally switches automated tasks to manual, forcing workers to maintain those manual skill in spite of automation?  I have long promoter ‘facilitation not automation‘ because of this very effect;  don’t eliminate people from the work by automation, but instead facilitate the communications that allows people to do more.

While it is hard to draw the exact boundary, one thing we know is that it is hard to convince a business of the benefit.  This quote sums it up:

Learning requires inefficiency. Businesses, which seek to maximize productivity and profit, would rarely accept such a trade-off. We pick the program that lightens our load, not the one that makes us work harder and longer. Abstract concerns about the fate of human talent can’t compete with the allure of saving time and money.

Learning, like planning, is viewed as a waste in an office when that office is treated as a machine.  It depends on whether you are working in a factory or not.  The companies that are winning today as ones that are creative and innovative.  To remain competitive, taking steps to maintain the viability of your knowledge workers may be more important than steps to automate.


1 thought on “Automation leads to Forgetting

  1. Pingback: Overautomation – the Value of Returning to Manual Work | Collaborative Planning & Social Business

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