Is Automation Really Helping Humans? Weighing the Costs and Benefits of Automation in Our Digital World

Recently, I opened up a sales email that was intended specifically for me. The author had even gone so far as to include my own name in the subject line, which is typically a nice touch.

But, when I opened it, I was disappointed to find that there were numerous inaccuracies. The sender had identified me as working with a company I hadn’t worked with in years. That aside, it reflected a job title I’d never held. One line of text was completely garbled with code, a clear sign of automation gone awry. Ironically, this came from a company purporting to specialize in sales and marketing automation software. I can guarantee you I now have no intention of working with them.

While I don’t have an issue with the fact that it was a sales email, I found myself frustrated with the company’s thinly veiled attempt to pretend it was written and sent by a real person when it was so obviously automated and sent to every person the business’s database.

That experience, when aligned with everything I do in my role as a strategy consultant, left me to wonder whether automating tasks that used to be handled by humans is actually helping our businesses in the way we’re led to believe it does.

The Evolution of Automation as an Advertising Solution

Ever since the internet revolutionized the way humans interact with one another, it’s been lauded as the greatest invention of our era, and perhaps of all time.

The invention and widespread adoption of the internet brought with it a shift in social norms. Beyond obvious cultural changes such as the use of email to communicate and the declining use of traditional media due to moves toward more online content, as a society, we began engaging with one another in new ways, exchanging real-world facetime for, well… FaceTime.

In the earliest days, the internet was heralded as a channel that provided opportunities for truly free speech and expression. But quickly, it became dominated by distributors selling us ads at every opportunity. When one ad strategy stopped delivering ROI, companies found new ones. At their core, giants such as Google and Facebook are nothing more than extremely successful advertising platforms.

In some ways, sophisticated advertising methodologies — the types that use artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to try to understand why we prefer, for instance, Tide detergent to Arm and Hammer — exist to benefit us, the consumers. The reasoning is simple: If companies can personalize their campaigns to our individual preferences, then you’re only seeing the types of things you want to see and therefore, they stand a higher chance of you making a purchase from them.

For decades, marketers have touted the benefits of data collection. By getting insight about who you are based on your internet activities, a company can target you and service your needs. But, in reality, a company that knows so much about you that it’s automatically marketing to you at every corner is at best, slightly creepy and, at worst, manipulating what could otherwise be otherwise autonomous purchasing habits. In fact, ad retargeting exists solely to offer a mental “reminder” that you’d been interested in something but didn’t buy. Some companies claim that the conversion rate for an ad retargeted to a unique user is ten times as high as a typical display ad.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing for humanity? You can argue that the person who purchases via a highly targeted ad was simply the result of matching a product to an audience. Or, you could argue that the person seeing the ad was being manipulated and driven to impulsively make a decision to commit to a purchase. But, in all honesty, marketers have been doing this for years with things as simple as strategically placing their candy bars at the register of your local convenience store.

Automation in Workplace Contexts: Marketing, Sales, Business Development and the FOS Framework

From a broad perspective, the benefits of automation are crystal clear: if you can automate specific digital tasks that used to take quite a long time, this frees up time to work on higher-priority projects. This, in turns, leads to higher productivity. It seems logical that this, in turn, would lead to higher revenue. But, the question to consider then becomes, does automation always truly net the best result?

Certainly, you can get more done by automating some tasks. Anyone who’s ever worked with marketing automation software recognizes how painful and time-consuming it can otherwise be to try to develop content for multiple different channels and platforms without it. Anyone who’s ever had to print and sign contracts will gladly evangelize the use of products like DocuSign.

However, it’s worth noting that reliance on automation can also lead to less-than-ideal outcomes, too. There’s always the case of the buyer who would really like to speak to a customer service representative but is instead stuck with an online chatbot. Who knows whether that person would have had a better experience had they spoken to a company rep? But the fact that the company decided to provide a barrier to entry to get in contact with the sales team may have cost the business a lucrative sale.

When analyzing whether a company can benefit from automation and identifying the best tools for any given purpose, Charles Solomon, a Human Capital Management Consultant in ADP’s Private Equity Group and expert in this space, encourages companies look to the FOS framework: financial value, operational value, and strategic value.

Financial value, or a focus on the bottom line, will always be a concern with regard to automation. Operational isn’t always as obvious, but appears in things like freeing up bandwidth and mental energy to focus on other projects. Finally, there’s strategic value, in which he addresses whether a specific automation project serves some larger benefit, such as nurturing potential strategic partnership.

While Solomon created the FOS method to help one particular company diligence multiple vendors, he realized the company’s struggles and concerns around automation weren’t unique to the company or even the industry. Reaching out to Solomon over email, I asked him if he would be interested in sharing his own opinions on the state of automation.

“Limiting overhead and maximizing efficiency is what automation affords, and it frees up resources to invest in what creates value – sales and product,” Solomon told me. “The debate around automation often involves the risk of human job loss, which is a valid concern. While I’m less worried than most, I am concerned about certain industries, like trucking. However, for many middle market firms around the country, they face risk from not automating.”

His point is valid. Historically, companies that have refused to embrace new practices and trends in technology have suffered severe consequences, including once-major brands like Polaroid and Blockbuster.

“From a long-term perspective, the new generation coming into the workforce doesn’t want to do work that can be automated,” he adds. “Hiring someone for a job that can be automated is both expensive and, at best, kicks the can down the proverbial road. Millenials and Gen Zs want to tackle more strategic projects and not position themselves for potential job loss, and I don’t blame them. Businesses need to be proactive in automating work and automation should be part of every company’s strategic plan.” In spite of our biggest fears around eliminating the need for labor pools, he’s correct to point out that people aren’t interested in working in jobs that will ultimately be eliminated anyway.

Solomon notes that business owners should respect the challenges of automating human-to-human interaction and recognize that humans will always want to interface with one another at various levels. Additionally, he suggests that professional job functions strategic to an organization that rely on complex brain activities will by design always be very difficult to automate. However, the question remains whether that’s truly a positive or a negative.

Challenges in Automation: Retaining Our Humanity in a Digital Landscape

When we look back at the question of whether automation is truly helping humans, the answer is the same as it is for so many other things — it depends on the situation. It would be unfathomable to ignore the many benefits of automation: time saved, the lack of labor wasted on menial tasks (often leading to greater employee happiness), and a company’s greater internal organization due to the automation of these activities.

The challenge in identifying whether automation truly is a benefit to humanity is in identifying the metrics against which to measure these benefits. Is it a positive benefit to automate tasks so a person can leave the office at a reasonable time to go spend time with family? Probably. Is it a positive benefit to automate those same tasks so the employee is now required to do more difficult, frustrating work without an increase in pay? That situation is more of a gray area, and presents yet another symptom of a widening wealth gap in an already stressed out workforce.

I propose that when identifying whether automation creates more problems for humanity than it solves, we look to Solomon’s framework at both a micro and macro level. Will automation support the bottom line in both the short term as well as sustainably over the long term? Will it have operational benefits for both the company and our individual team members? Will being strategically aligned with a given automation product or service offer additional intangible benefits that will help both the company grow and our partners to thrive in compelling ways? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” how should we address this?

The truth is that even if the data show otherwise, reliance on automation will continue to grow as the internet — and the world — becomes increasingly complex and challenging. Therefore, I suggest keeping in mind that, like anything in life, the only true benefit to having a valuable tool comes from knowing how to use it wisely.

About the Author

Lindsey Myers founded Concrete Blonde Consulting in November 2016 to pursue her passion for building reputations and revenues through business development marketing strategies.  She provides profit and growth solutions and thrives as an in-house consultant. A communications expert and entrepreneur,  she has over twelve years of experience serving various industries including consumer products and services, lifestyle, hospitality and nonprofit companies in NYC and the Hamptons luxury market.