Automation is an opportunity to reinvest in your people as assets


Published on June 28, 2017

In today’s business environment, technology and competitive disruption are keeping more and more C‑suite executives up at night. Organizations devote considerable thought to ways they can leverage new technologies to gain competitive advantage, and they seek to minimize the disruptive effects of those technologies on their current business models. These are important considerations, but there is another disruptive aspect of emerging technologies that, to date, has received less attention. And that missing piece is the intellectual property housed in the minds and capabilities of the organization’s people.

Many back-office jobs that were commonplace just 10 years ago have disappeared or will soon disappear as a result of automation. While automation will increase efficiencies in some ways, there’s no guarantee it will greatly enhance competitive positioning as competing organizations will implement similar back-end technologies and the result will be similar productivity outcomes. If technology is sometimes the great equalizer, then people and their capabilities will be the key to future competitive advantage.


The critical importance of intellectual assets

As organizations operate with fewer and fewer people in ratio with their market footprint, there is increasing pressure to ensure that their talent differentiates them in the marketplace and wins them advantage. For this reason, the way organizations build their intellectual property and intellectual value is quickly becoming the new competitive frontier.

Of course, talented people have always been an important asset. For example, in the past, an organization may have employed 10 people in different administrative, management, strategic and other roles, and losing any of those people would have had a significant impact. Today, after successive waves of technological transformation, the need is for only three instead of 10 people, which means the risk of losing intellectual assets is much more concentrated. With fewer people, the need for excellent talent to drive competitive advantage is even more pressing.

Despite this, many organizations still don’t have a clear understanding of the current state of their intellectual assets and what needs to be done to retain and develop them.

For this reason, organizations need to begin seeking new ways to invest in their people. Those that look at their balance sheets and current and future assets–and how differentiated talent contributes to those assets–will likely begin investing in their people differently than they did in the past.


How might organizations better deploy their intellectual assets today?

As organizations continue to be transformed by the fourth industrial revolution1, the challenge is to find ways to treat talent as assets that work in cooperation with systems.

Today, there is some debate about how this talent/systems relationship could work and how talent assets should be deployed. Some argue that unprecedented automation will leave more than a third of people out of work, and others will be pushed into low-end jobs that add little value for workers or their employers. However, other organizations may choose to retrench their human assets to add greater value by doing the “human” things that systems cannot do, such as delighting customers, improving collaboration, or spending time thinking creatively about the business and innovation.


Source Year Methodology Country
Brookfield Institute 2016 Replication of Frey and Osbourne’s occupation-based methodology. Canada 42% of the Canadian labour force is at high risk of being affected by automation
C.D. Howe 2017 Adaptation of Frey and Osbourne’s occupation-based methodology:
Advances to the methodology include an updated list of skills that cannot be computerized and weighting of skill level for each occupation by importance of that skill to the occupation.
Canada 35% of occupations are highly susceptible to automation
OECD 2016 Task-based methodology that spanned across 21 countries. Paper argues that an occupation-based methodology creates inflated percentages, given that occupations labelled as high-risk still had a considerable portion of tasks that would be difficult to automate. 21 countries, including Canada In Canada, 9% of jobs are at high risk of being automated

We believe the greatest value will be achieved when people and technologies work in tandem. For example, technologies can be used to identify moments in the customer experience cycle when a customer needs help, since systems can identify those moments faster and more precisely than a person. The person’s role would be to intercede with the customer at the moment identified by the system in order to interact with the customer in the most meaningful way.

For this reason, the kind of intellectual capital organizations need to build will be largely driven by their customers since the key to sustained success is serving the organization’s customers, now and in the future, better than the organization’s competitors.


What would an intellectual capital game plan look like?

Organizations in pursuit of competitive advantage need to answer some key questions. Where will we employ our people for advantage? How will our people create that advantage? What future skill sets does our organization need? What do we need to build in our current and future employees to make sure they drive a competitive advantage?

When considering these questions, the objective isn’t just about finding talent with high-demand, hard-to-find skill sets, such as data scientists (though that may also be important). Instead, it’s more about upgrading the organization’s current and future talent in much the same way that the organization plans how it will upgrade its systems and other technologies. Our recommendation is to begin as soon as possible. Imagine your organization’s workforce of the future, understand possible automation, and begin to upskill and diversify your talent, redirecting effort into new forms of value creation.

As a first step, organizations should profile all of their various talent roles through a segmentation exercise. Begin by developing an understanding of all aspects of each critical role or segment in the organization, including the specific skills and competencies required to perform each function.

Next, undertake an inventory of the organization’s current talent pool to identify people’s current skills and abilities, gaps where there’s a current lack of required skills, and the skills the organization will need in the future. This is important because the information and knowledge people acquire throughout their careers are an organization’s top assets. Therefore, the organization needs to determine how it will sustain and transfer that knowledge at a time when their current, most experienced talent–the baby boomers–are moving into retirement. By 2030, closer to 25% of Canadians will be 65 or older, compared to 15% in 20132. Organizations may also face other talent needs, for example, if they plan to move into new markets and will need to attract and retain new classes of customers. Ideally, work with finance to reflect on the value of your intellectual assets, wherever they reside in the organization. That way, as the organization thinks about how to design the organization of the future, people will be properly considered alongside the technological assets on your balance sheet.

Finally, the organization needs to determine the potential of its current people. Which ones show the greatest ability to develop new skills and take on key roles to build success? Since all organizations have limited dollars to invest, they need to get the greatest impact from those investment dollars. A good strategy, therefore, is to focus their investment on candidates who show the greatest potential. There is incredible science available in the market today to take the guesswork and bias out of measuring potential and making fact-based decisions.

Today, when intellectual capital is both an organization’s greatest differentiator and biggest driver of its value, talent management is one of, if not the most important leadership capability. Being able to identify potential top talent at both a functional and technical level as well as targeting learning and development efforts towards those individuals will be increasingly critical to an organization’s success.



Stephen Harrington Stephen Harrington
Stephen is a senior manager within our Human Capital team and a leader in our National Talent & Leadership Strategies Consulting team. He leads transformations in talent strategy that enable our client’s people to feel they make a personal impact and drive business results. With 17 years of experience in consulting, Stephen has worked with clients across the private and public sectors with a focus on helping clients develop approaches to building talent and new capabilities in complex transformation environments.



1 World Economic Forum. (2016, January 14). The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond. Retrieved from

2 S. Johal & J. Thirgood. (2016). Working without a net. Mowat Centre.


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