There’s a lot of anxiety right now about the rise of automation — not just machines replacing factory and service industry workers, but software that automates more specialised industries like recruiting or accounting.
Much of that change is being driven from the heart of Silicon Valley, where fast-growing companies like Uber, Oracle, and even Cisco are all working on solutions that take tasks that once required a human touch, like trucking, sales, and factory manufacturing, and automate them into redundancy.
But the startups who are actually making these big changes across all industries don’t see it that way. In fact, they say that automation has the ability to grow industries, and workers’ roles in them, more than ever before.
Take, for example, Lever — a recruiting startup with $32 million in venture capital from investors including Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. Recruitiment, explains Lever CEO Sarah Nahm at a recent event, is a great example of an entire industry that’s seemingly at-risk with the rise of high-tech software solutions.
When companies are growing, recruiters are worth their weight in gold, bringing qualified candidates into the fold. But when growth starts to slow down, they’re often the first to be shown the door, Nahm says. It’s exacerbated by the fact that “nobody majors in recruiting,” she says, as in recruiters can often be otherwise unskilled workers.
Add that up with the fact that companies like LinkedIn keep making their recruiting services more powerful, making it easier to find qualified candidates, and at least on paper, the whole staffing industry might seemed doomed to be replaced by software and robots.
That’s a big part of what Nahm and Lever are actually fighting against, though. What Lever is building, she says, is a way to use automation actually add to what recruiters can do. Lever’s automation can help find candidates, and it can even help sort their CVs and cover letters so it’s easier to turn up the best of the best.
In the long run, that opens the doors for Lever to provide additional software, like analytics on employee job performance and on how their careers are progressing at a company.
The result is that recruiters can spend more of their time and develop more of their skills on actually making a difference at the company, even during lean times, by helping people do their jobs better and making sure they’re happy and staying on board. In other words, automation actually stands to grow the industry by helping workers deliver more value, rather than getting decimated in the passing wave of automation.
“That’s going to be true for lots more industries,” says Nahm.
The spreading workforce
Still, some adjustment will be required, says Marten Mickos, CEO of HackerOne, which connects an army of freelance hackers from all over the world with companies who use their services to test the security of their own products.
“Every major wave of innovation will displace some old forms of human work,” Mickos says. “Otherwise it wouldn’t count as an innovation!”
The world has really glommed on to the model of Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook, which allow and encourage remote workers to get work done from wherever they are, so long that work is high quality. It’s a trend exacerbated by tech tools like Slack, GitHub, and Atlassian’s JIRA, which let workers from all over collaborate on the business wherever they are.
HackerOne is a great example of how that’s turned into a business model: As Mickos notes, HackerOne’s main audience is comprised of freelance hackers all over the world, who don’t live anywhere near the companies on whose software they’re working.
If you think a little bigger, there’s no reason why that trend can’t touch manufacturing, retail, or lots of other industries, too. Software is eating the world, as venture investor Marc Andreessen famously observed, and literally everything from cargo handling to factory machinery to power plants are now being powered by software.
If that’s the case, Mickos asks, then couldn’t the next big wave of industry have an entirely distributed workforce like HackerOne?
“Workers will be needed less and less in physical labour, and more and more in monitoring, quality control and servicing the factory processes, which will go from semi-automated to fully automated,” Mickos says. “So there is a change for everybody.”
The end result
The key to the whole trend is collaboration, Lever’s Nahm says. All of this only works with tools that help people and machines work together across geographies and time zones.
Tools like Slack and Facebook for Work are great as far as they go, Nahm says, but they’re kind of lowest common denominator as a catch-all for office work. As trends of automation and remote work continue to spread, there’s going to have to be more domain-specific products specialised for larger industry.
“Once you get past the low-hanging fruit, you’re going to have to make more niche products,” Nahm says.
Ultimately, industries that make the transition to this more digital way of thinking are going to focus way less on physical locality, instead relying on automation and collaboration to get the small stuff out of the way and focus on bigger-picture stuff.
It’s a new challenge to think of industries through this lens. The promise, though, is a workforce that moves faster, in every industry.
As Amy Vetter, Global VP of accounting startup Xero, a global company with workers in multiple time zones, says, “I can’t control their work hours, but I can control their business outcomes.”
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