The current pace of change is dizzying. Navigating this new era of digital revolution can feel perplexing and overwhelming for small and mid-sized business owners still recovering from a global pandemic that seismically shifted how we work. How will we redefine the future of work? How do we pivot to embrace change and not be consumed by it? How do we co-exist in a meaningful, safe, and beneficial harmony WITH technology? These are the questions we are all struggling to answer in a constantly evolving present, barreling toward a lightning speed future.
Working alongside technology requires a rethinking of the “the way we’ve always done it.” But it also represents incredible new opportunities for us to redefine the human experience with work and collectively repurpose our intellect and ingenuity to move forward with confidence and purpose.
While SMBs face many challenges, they also have the power to pivot with greater efficiency and agility than large enterprises. Optimizing that power means adopting proven, impactful technology that addresses the most critical challenges on the horizon. Intelligent Automation is the use of advanced technology to streamline and enhance various business processes. It combines artificial intelligence (AI) and automation to perform tasks and make decisions in a smart and efficient manner. These tools save time, reduce errors, empower more informed decisions and level up ability to rival larger competitors. Automation is quickly becoming a must-have capability, especially for SMBs.
The labor shortage is not going away
According to the U.S Chamber of Commerce, currently there are 9.8 million job openings in the U.S. but only 5.9 million unemployed workers. While employment data experienced anomalous disruption during the pandemic, a labor shortage was in motion before Covid and it will continue past the current economic instability. Economists forecast the looming retirement of baby boomers and the declining birth rate will significantly impact the workforce for decades to come.
For Ohio businesses, finding qualified labor eclipses concerns about inflation. As of August 10, 2023, Ohio has 66 people available to fill every 100 jobs. “The U.S. Chamber report published last week reflects exactly what we’ve been seeing here in Ohio – workforce is the greatest problem for businesses today. It continues to be the number one issue we hear from our members,” said Ohio Chamber CEO Steve Stivers. As an emerging technology hub, Ohio has invested significantly in workforce transformation and progressive initiatives like InnovateOhio that are successfully helping to mitigate more severe labor shortage challenges being experienced in other states. For example, in North Dakota and South Dakota, the states most severely affected by the labor shortage, there are only 35 available workers for every 100 jobs.
A recurring theme of the AI conversation is the fear of replacing humans. Bolstered by constant “Terminator” references and fueled by uncertainty, this nebulous narrative clouds the pragmatic value of integrating even established technology like Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as a necessity for moving forward in a future with fewer workers. Fabrizio Biscotti, Vice President of Research at Gartner, says automation has “shifted from an option to a condition of survival.”
“Organizations will require more IT and business process automation as they are forced to accelerate digital transformation plans in a post-COVID-19, digital-first world.”
Generative AI is still a conversation evolving by the day. But historically speaking, industrial revolutions in world history have never resulted in job loss. In fact, after a few bumpy years of reskilling and redefining roles, the results were net global GAINS in jobs. Despite the significant and unprecedented pace of technology advancement in the past 75 years, the global economy has experienced a large increase in the number of available jobs. In 1970, 80 million people in the U.S. worked full time or part time. In 2023, that number is nearly 159 million.
What does this mean for SMBs?
SMBs represent 44% of the U.S. GDP. They are 90% of all businesses globally and employ 50-70% of all the workers on the planet. SMBs are an indispensable piece of our global economy yet most are grappling with the labor shortage and widening technology gaps. According to McKinsey, 50 percent of SMB owners report difficulty filling open positions, and roughly 90 percent report few or no qualified candidates for them. Fierce competition for labor disadvantages SMBs who often lack the resources to offer the high salaries large companies can leverage to win top talent. According to the National Federation of Independent Business July, 2023 jobs report, “overall, 61% of owners reported hiring or trying to hire in July, up two points from June. Of those hiring or trying to hire, 92% of owners reported few or no qualified applicants for the positions they were trying to fill, up two points.”
While practical and affordable options like strategic outsourcing and fractional IT support are emerging as major trends for filling talent needs, SMBs must acutely focus on technology investments that both reduce operational costs and reinvent ways to do work that propels growth.
“Where high growth was the order of the day for the past 10+ years, the foreseeable future will be about operational efficiency and reducing the overhead and effort required to deliver goods and serve customers.”
Intelligent Automation has become an essential tool
Automation is already a part of our everyday lives. Any time a form is auto-filled or an order for a cheeseburger is placed on a kiosk, automation is happening. In many regards, it has become ubiquitous and has created efficiency and convenience in ways we no longer even notice.
The largest companies have been successfully using Intelligent Automation for more than 20 years. Early adopters are now well positioned for exponential growth powered by generative AI, substantially outpacing their competitors. But there remains a gap in the adoption rate by SMBs, traditionally the “late majority” in the technology adoption life cycle.
While rapid change in the digital era creates many challenges for SMBs, it also creates many opportunities. At their inception, automation tools were costly, difficult to deploy and inaccessible for all but the most risk tolerant and deep pocketed organizations. In 2023, the industry has expanded significantly with a multitude of providers and tools available at price points that allow the potential for dramatic ROI. Automation is no longer the exclusive dominion of the Fortune 10,000.
Although the term “Intelligent Automation” encompasses a broad range of capabilities including machine learning and generative AI, its basic components like RPA (Robotics Process Automation) are well established and foundational core competencies with millions of proven use cases and active applications. An abundance of software tools on the market have made RPA an affordable and highly impactful initial investment in digital transformation that can immediately create:
- Relief for labor shortages and high wage rates
- Efficiency and productivity to lower overhead and operational expenses
- Enhanced customer service and responsiveness
- Flexibility to scale up work volume without adding additional staff
- Data driven decision-making
- A strong foundation for accelerating the adoption rate of emerging technology
Redefining the way we work in the future
Harvard Business Review recently published an article with the title “AI won’t replace humans. But humans with AI will replace humans without AI.” Moving forward, the question becomes how we will wield technology tools to change the human experience. For business owners, this requires a dedicated and thoughtful redefining of how we work. Intelligent Automation creates time savings and efficiency but humans must effectively repurpose that time with the goal of creating greater value for the business, not just saving money. Any successful automation implementation intrinsically relies on “paying it forward” with human capital by dedicating brain power to higher level strategy and innovation.
Optimizing human resources means fostering a culture of innovation where new ideas are encouraged and embraced. Work will no longer be defined by maintaining the status quo. Rather, Intelligent Automation frees us to do what we do best – dream, solve, invent, pioneer and excel.
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