In my last blog, I looked at which jobs have been automated over the last 50 years and which ones are being automated now through what I call ‘intelligent automation’.

I am carrying out research with businesses to understand how they view the impact of automation on jobs and business structures – I plan to publish a white paper later this year with the key findings (click here to take this five minute survey and I will share these with you).

This research is still in its raw state but the findings that have jumped out at me so far are

  • 48% of businesses have not looked at the impact of automation on jobs – and this tallies with what the directors that I have interviewed also say (if you would like to meet me and discuss this further for your own organisation, please do contact me)
  • Only 17% of respondents think that managerial jobs will be hit by automation – and fewer still, just 3%, think leadership positions will be lost

So the business world is sitting there expecting automation to change the world in the same pattern as previous automation waves. They think if automation affects jobs at all (and many don’t even think this) then it will be the blue collar and clerical jobs to go while managers sit pretty in their offices with the world continuing broadly as they know it.

But this wave of automation is very different. Professionals and highly skilled workers will be affected too.

If we look at which jobs can be done better by machines, these are the ones based on analysing past experience and patterns. When you look at a whole variety of managerial and even professional jobs, it is surprising how much of their role is to make decisions based on what they have seen before. Let’s look at some examples.

Retail shopping campaigns

Analysing customer shopping trends and creating campaigns to drive footfall at Christmas is a mix of analysis and creativity. A machine is far better and quicker at deciding why footfall has increased or declined – a computer can number crunch thousands more options and draw more accurate conclusions. But the creative side of the campaign would still need human brains – we are better at gauging the future and judging moods, coming up with something completely new that will capture imaginations.

Forensic accounting

You may have had a call from your bank, asking if you can confirm a transaction that was out of your norm – an extravagant lunch in the Maldives, perhaps! Of course this is not your friendly bank manager keeping an eye on your spending habits but highly sophisticated machines analysing consumer patterns to spot possible fraud at a very early stage.

Even if you recognise that number-crunching is better done by robots, you probably still expect to need an accountant’s experienced eye to interpret the patterns and deduce how a fraud has been perpetrated? Now though, almost certainly an intelligent machine will do this more accurately and faster.

Routine surgery

Much of a surgeon’s work can be done better by machines, providing the person they are operating on has a ‘routine’ body. Uncomfortable though it may feel, a robotic surgeon could probably do cataract surgery, IVF procedures and knee replacements quicker and with better results than a human surgeon – they can keep going for longer and don’t get tired or irritable.

What a robot won’t be so good at is operating on people who have a number of serious illnesses that are rarely seen together; the unpredictable and one-off operations. The robot won’t have enough past experience stored in its ‘brain’ to create a new path while operating.


90% of what an architect does is done through CAD software – and all this can be automated around checking the stresses, the materials that should be used, how the design meets all the planning and environmental laws.

What a robot can’t do – yet – is to know how to create an amazing impact or understand how other people will view the building and love it. That still requires human judgement and creativity.

So what conclusions can we draw from all this?

The jobs that will still be needed are those that require human empathy. Robots could just be the answer to our NHS nursing crises and allow nurses to get back to caring for patients rather than filling in forms and emptying bedpans.

Leaders will still be needed to inspire and motivate their colleagues – what few are left. We will still need humans for jobs where you need a lot of gut instinct, creativity and inspiration. Robots aren’t in the same league as humans – yet.

But we should not kid ourselves about many jobs. Even judges could be at risk – 80% of their task is rules-based and analysing the implications of precedents. And yes, machines can do this better than humans. The 20% of value that the judge brings to his decision is looking to the future and thinking through the impact of their decisions.

Robots are not yet good at looking and assessing the future. Yet.

Have you thought through the impact in your own business? Although the heading of this blog looks at the next 20 years, actually much of this is happening now. Certainly big changes will be happening within five years.

Is your board on top of the impact for your business and your industry sector? Unfortunately we will see more ‘Kodak companies’ in their case they didn’t exploit mobile phones and digital photography until way too late.

I think there are five questions every board should be asking themselves now. What else should they be doing? And what is the role of middle managers in all this?