The “Cognitive Era” has arrived and with it the looming fear that jobs in knowledge-based professions, such as accounting, will be replaced by robots. Today the world of work is changing at warp speed.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans think that in 50 years robots and computers will have taken over most work, yet few believe their own jobs are at risk, according to a 2015 survey, ”The Future of Workforce Automation,” by the Pew Research Center. This also was the conclusion drawn by the World Economic Forum’s 2016 report, “The Future of Jobs,” which estimates that 5 million jobs will be lost to automation by 2020 and that this number will keep growing.

While there is some cause for concern, there are also opportunities to integrate cognitive automation with human capital, which KPMG has outlined in a new white paper, “Embracing the Cognitive Era.”

Workplace revolution

Today we are clearly in the midst of a workplace revolution — described by some as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and others as the “Cognitive Era.”

Whatever you call it, it represents the combination of cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, and the Internet of Systems, according to a recent article in Forbes magazine, “Why Everyone Must Get Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” While there will be risks, there also will be opportunities.

Certainly, some aspects of the future workplace are already present and new technology will continue to evolve rapidly, but humans will still be needed as workers. In fact, some experts predict that the automation of certain tasks may give human workers increased opportunities to be more innovative.

While the changes will be profound, businesses need to embrace change and think strategically about the forces of disruption to enhance innovation for their organization and the workers they employ.

A new class of digital labor

Many repetitive and manual jobs have already been replaced by automation and artificial intelligence. And, while this steady and inevitable decline of jobs may continue, certain jobs will evolve and new jobs will emerge, requiring workers to learn new skills and be more innovative. Plus, taking manual tasks away from error-prone humans could help bring jobs back onshore to the U.S.; likely a win-win for all.

These changes are also ushering in a new class of digital labor that leverages cognitive automation, which is the convergence of robotic process automation (RPA) and cognitive technologies.

Benefits of cognitive automation

Cognitive automation can:

• Augment human skills, enabling employees to ­contribute new insights

• Accelerate time to ­proficiency

• Scale expertise across the enterprise

“In order to thrive, business leaders will have to actively work to expand their thinking away from what has been traditionally done, and include ideas and systems that may never have been considered,” according to the Forbes article. In KPMG’s view, this includes getting started with cognitive automation.

Cognitive automation is not just technology implementation — it needs to be part of a holistic strategy that reaches across the enterprise to improve the performance of the company and the ­employees.

Getting started with cognitive automation

KPMG recommends these four steps to help business leaders get started with ­cognitive automation:

1. Begin the journey

Determine what these changes will mean for your business processes, people, and culture by asking:

• What are the benefits of digital labor?

• What are the opportunities across functions?

• How will employees do their jobs differently?

2. Select a vendor

• Do you need a niche software provider with narrow applications, such as digital assistants for retail customer service?

• Do you need a vendor for configurable process robotics software or is it best to seek a provider with more comprehensive platforms in ­artificial intelligence and machine learning?

3. Determine your road map

• Determine where to start and how to progress to ensure success with cognitive ­automation.

• Develop a strategy to include solutions to how employees will be affected by digital labor.

4. Implement the strategy

• Ensure that technology teams use modern design thinking and agile methodologies to drive user adoption at every stage of the implementation road map.

As the world of work continues to transform, business leaders need to rethink their strategy and embrace cognitive automation to help their companies thrive and make every employee an innovator.

 

Joe VanLoy is an advisory director in the Minneapolis office of KPMG LLP.