‘Knowledge work’ refers to jobs which depend primarily on the individual’s ability to work with information. In recent years, there’s been growing concern that the automation of knowledge work will cause ‘damage’ to those workers. The argument states that a wide range of jobs, from manufacturing to journalism to accounting, could potentially be taken over by artificial intelligence and robots.
However, despite the doom-mongering headlines about the automation of knowledge work, most professionals working in this part of the economy are generally positive about its potential. One recent survey found that 97% of knowledge workers believe automation could benefit their workplaces, and nearly 60% said they could save over six hours per week if repetitive tasks were automated.
The reality is that most knowledge workers are open to the idea of automating parts of their jobs, and to the technology that will support this.
For example, if a machine could take on a knowledge worker’s data entry tasks, help them avoid recreating documents they’d made before or even just chase colleagues to complete tasks, it seems safe to assume most workers would embrace that wholeheartedly. Put simply, automation allows you more time to work on creative, high value and intellectually stimulating work.
So, what would the automation of knowledge work look like in practice?
Two Examples of the Automation of Knowledge Work
1. Document Creation and Approval
A huge amount of a knowledge worker’s time is spent creating documents, then getting his or her colleagues to approve them. From press releases to internal guidelines to proposals, workers are regularly asking colleagues to review and approve the content in these files.
Typically, employees will make a copy of the document, then attach it to an email and send this to colleagues, who may make changes and send them back. Or, alternatively, forward the document on to other colleagues. Before long, multiple versions of the document are circling around the office, people become confused, and the original creator is unsure who has seen the document and what they’ve done with it.
How Automation Would Work
Say you created a press release for your new product and stored the draft in your company’s Box storage environment. Automation would allow you kick-start a document approval process that would be smoother and more efficient than the manual alternative, saving you countless hours chasing colleagues for the press release’s approval:
- The employees who need to see and edit the press release receive email notifications containing a link to the document
- They can edit it all in the same place before handing it on to the next person in the approval process
- Only one version of the document exists, so there is no confusion
- Automatic reminders mean people remember that they need to make changes, so the document is processed faster
2. Reviewing Invoices
Knowledge workers need to review invoices to ensure details and pricing are correct and line up with what was originally agreed. When this process is manual, it can be time-consuming and inefficient. Staff need to hunt through emails and document storage platforms, and liaise with internal and external partners to ascertain if the services or goods received are equivalent to the final amount on the invoice.
How Automation Would Work
Say your company decided to sponsor an event. When making payments, you would want to ensure that all the features and perks offered by the events company’s salespeople were delivered on. Automating the review process would be highly beneficial here:
- An automated system could source the original proposal documents and collate other relevant information and emails to provide you with an overview of what was agreed
- On approval, this could be forwarded on to the finance department for due diligence before payment is made
- As a result, the payment is reviewed and approved much faster
The Automation of Knowledge Work is Nothing to be Feared
When we hear about the automation of knowledge work, there’s often a tendency to see the impact as negative. That’s because the topic can be framed in terms of lost jobs and de-skilling human workers.
However, when we look closer, it’s clear that most knowledge workers are open to the idea of automating less than exciting manual work and repetitive processes, so they can focus more on creative, high-value work. As the two examples outlined above highlight, automation in the knowledge work sector is about improving processes and saving people a lot of time.
A better way to think about the automation of knowledge work is to focus on the time saved, which allows knowledge workers to do their best work, actual knowledge work.
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