Communicating Automation’s Impact on Businesses

Over the past two years, we have witnessed the dwindling of America’s labor force – a phenomenon many have labeled The Great Resignation or The Great Reshuffle. In 2021, more than 47 million workers quit their jobs to seek new opportunities with the promise of improved work-life balance, greater flexibility, increased compensation and a stronger company culture. This shortage has prompted many employers to reevaluate pay and work from home flexibility to better retain and attract talent. It also has forced companies to look for more efficient ways to maintain business momentum while navigating staffing shortages, a tight labor market and a challenged macroeconomic environment.

For many companies, this has meant exploring automation and machine learning as a potential solution, and AI is becoming a growing reality across sectors. In fact, the sustainability and long-term viability of some companies may very well depend on moving toward automation. As AI gains traction more widely across industries, the number of use cases continues to expand. We’re seeing AI embedded in retail to enhance the in-store experience, in healthcare to detect conditions earlier on, in engineering to allow employees to work on higher-value tasks, in manufacturing to limit human error and more. Amid this shift, it has become clear that companies need to more clearly communicate the power of automation to their employees and customers, and better acknowledge why they’re choosing to evolve their business models.

The question is now not if, but when, companies will meet the moment and consider the need to incorporate automation. At the same time, companies need to recognize the potential opposition they may receive from employees, politicians, unions and other labor-related groups. To some stakeholders, especially employees, customers and government officials, “automation” is often correlated with job loss, business disruptions and a lack of authority to manage or make individualized decisions. Conversely, other stakeholders recognize that increased automation can yield cost-savings, heightened efficiencies and opportunities for employees to pursue new lines of work – often in different capacities, roles and locations.

Bottom Line: Be Proactive and Clear with Stakeholders

How companies communicate the move to AI will impact how each stakeholder group responds to the introduction or enhancement of the technology and their willingness to adopt new practices. Therefore, companies should introduce the change with an eye toward what it will mean for the business long-term, and the related benefits and challenges it could present to the company’s stakeholders. A few key points to consider:

  • Communicate what is happening, why and what it means: Companies should be clear and direct in communicating their plans to help those impacted understand the company’s rationale for adopting AI and its implications should the transition not be seamless.
    • Take retail for example. During the pandemic, and more recently, in the face of supply chain restrictions and labor shortages, many retailers, including Kroger and Walmart, incorporated robots and machine learning to help prepare orders and deliver a faster, more convenient shopping experience for customers. Despite the shift to a more AI-driven workplace, retailers communicated the continued need for their employees – sometimes in different roles and capacities – to quality check work, detect inaccuracies and interface more with customers, among other tasks, to ensure that the order fulfillment process was carried out smoothly. This helped assuage concerns among employees that AI would replace their jobs entirely.
    • Another example is Walgreens’ Flu Index. Using AI, the company can track flu activity across the United States, which enables Walgreens to restock medication and allocate vaccines accordingly. The company’s openness to communicating the benefits of the data tool – while also being clear about its limitations – gives stakeholders a clear indication of the index’s role in efficiently stocking Walgreens stores, while shedding light on the at-risk and medically underserved populations who are most vulnerable to the flu.
  • Be open to feedback: Clear communication, authenticity and an openness to feedback present the opportunity for leadership to problem solve with input from customers, employees and other stakeholders. The more transparent leadership can be about the potential challenges and benefits of AI, the greater likelihood they will gain support for adopting the technology.
    • Not all implementations of AI go smoothly. One example was Microsoft’s 2016 introduction of “Tay” – an AI-powered chatbot designed to improve machine-to-human conversation quality on social media. As it carried out its study of human online interactions, Tay’s machine learning quickly began to absorb negative sentiment, replicate interactions and publish highly offensive and political tweets. In response, Microsoft took Tay offline, issued public apologies and published its learnings to the company’s blog. It’s impossible to predict every misuse or potential vulnerability of AI, but should missteps occur, a company should learn from those mistakes and be open to feedback. Microsoft was forthright in admitting Tay’s failure, communicating about the blunder with stakeholders and emphasizing the steps the company would take to improve interactions going forward.

As companies continue to adapt to an increasingly automated world, leadership should be prepared to succinctly outline the business reasons behind why decisions to step up technological processes are being made, and why, if done right, those decisions should ultimately benefit stakeholders through greater opportunities for growth, cost savings and business efficiencies.

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Lauren Hilliker, a Vice President at Abernathy MacGregor, provides communications, stakeholder engagement and reputation management counsel to corporate leadership teams and Boards of Directors across a variety of industries. She has counseled clients on complex situations, with a focus on maximizing business continuity and protecting corporate valuations.

 

Abigail Ruck is a Vice President at Abernathy MacGregor. She provides strategic communications counsel to clients on crisis response, litigation, transactions, executive transitions and public affairs across complex situations with a focus on issues and reputational management.

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