McKinsey weighs in on job automation: “Very few occupations will be automated in their entirety”

Written by Jordan McMahon in Software robots in the workplace on November 16, 2015

McKinsey recently released research on the outlook for automation and jobs, and proves to be an interesting new angle on the “man vs. machine” debate. The 8-ball summary? Outlook: good. 


According to the research, jobs won’t be replaced, but will morph to incorporate the new capabilities that automation brings to just about any workplace. (McKinsey uses the example of a bank teller—still a viable occupation today, but different after ATMs came along.) 

Here’s a summary of what emerged from McKinsey’s research: 

We need to be careful about how we use the term “job automation” 
It’s no wonder people hear the term and feel concern. But McKinsey challenges that there’s a difference between “occupational automation” and jobs (or tasks) within an occupation (such as depositing money at a bank with an actual teller). The former is a low incidence “threat,” particularly in the near future. The latter can be thought of as “job activities.” 

McKinsey says, “According to our analysis, fewer than 5 percent of occupations can be entirely automated using current technology. However, about 60 percent of occupations could have 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated.”

CEOs, doctors, lawyers...all have job activities that will be automated
Already there’s a solid foundation for the idea that white-collar work will be impacted with the new wave of automation technology. (As in this ZDNet article). McKinsey’s research reinforces that notion: 

“We estimate that activities consuming more than 20 percent of a CEO’s working time could be automated using current technologies. These include analyzing reports and data to inform operational decisions, preparing staff assignments, and reviewing status reports. Conversely, there are many lower-wage occupations such as home health aides, landscapers, and maintenance workers, where only a very small percentage of activities could be automated with technology available today.” 

Understand the ins and outs of automation
Like most technology, a “boil-the-ocean” approach to automation is rarely a successful one. As is going in without a strategy for change in the organization. McKinsey reiterates that executives should consider all of these things, as well as amount to invest in automation, contemplating how to use or morph skillsets of people within the organization (finding opportunities for increased creativity, for instance), and which processes can be automated fully, or augmented through use of automation. 

To read McKinsey’s research on the “Four fundamentals of workplace automation,” head here