How to leverage innovation in the age of automation


In today’s global context, rapid digitalization necessitates a comprehensive re-evaluation in the conceptual understanding as well as operation of professional workplaces. While companies across industries compete to adopt the latest available technologies, workers and employees face unprecedented job insecurity as automation increasingly replaces positions once occupied by humans.

That being said, it is essential to recognize that limits of automation exist and an equivalently adaptive human workforce remains indispensable for the success of any given organization. Regardless of the size or nature of the industry, professionals and prospective employees alike can become more aware and prepared for the unfolding digital era.

South African Jobs of the Future in Peril

According to Accenture Consulting’s research in 2018, the process of automation is drastically diminishing the demand of manual labor, putting one in every three jobs in South Africa at risk. At a time when the country’s unemployment rate stands at 27.6% as reported by Statistics South Africa, the job market continues to stagnate and conditions will likely exacerbate with the advancement of automation.

However, South Africa’s demographic momentum presents a tremendous resource to be tapped into. As 50% of the current South African population is under the age of 30 and World Economic Forum estimates that 15-20 million young people are expected to join the job market every year across the continent, delivering a hospitable ecosystem of quality jobs will be imperative for all industries to sustain growth. 

At the same time, young people constitute the most vulnerable demographic sector in the South African labor market, reflected by the staggering 55.2% of unemployment rate among the 15-24 age group collected by SSA. In order to prevent the loss of productivity among the younger generation, players in the entire South African economy must take action to capture and activate the incoming talent.

Digitalization and Workforce Preparedness

While the number of skilled workers has increased by 108% from 1994 to 2014 according to SSA, employers across the region identify inadequately skilled workforce as a major constraint to their business, including 41% of all firms in Tanzania, 30% in Kenya, 9% in South Africa and 6% in Nigeria. WEF also projects that 39% of the core skills required across occupations in South Africa will be entirely different by 2020, which can be further accelerated by widespread digitalization.

Such challenges are also emerging in other parts of the world, and companies are proactively enhancing workforce preparedness through various methods of Learning and Development (L&D). In the US, companies are prioritizing soft skills development such as leadership, customer service and communication over hard or role-specific skills that are less transferable and more susceptible to becoming obsolete in the digitized environment. Similarly, UK firms with strong L&D initiatives promoting innovation often experience financial growth and improved employee retention rate. By training the workforce in correspondence with the changing professional landscape under constant digital modification, both companies and individuals will profit from a stimulating environment that encourages human innovation to flourish.

There are convincing reasons why South African companies should follow suit and begin investing in L&D programs within the professional setting. In IMD’s 2017 World Digital Rankings, South Africa’s attitude towards digital knowledge ranks number two on the index, surpassed only by China. In other words, individuals in South Africa are willing to embrace and adapt to the changes associated with digitalization and automation.

Accenture’s research also reveals that South Africa can reduce the number of jobs at risk by one million, if the country can double the pace at which its workforce acquire skills relevant for human-machine collaboration. As the report puts it, “the more intensive the use of human-like skills to perform a task, the less likely it is to be automated.” Having a workforce with sufficient training and exposure to the multifaceted automation process will contribute to the digital readiness of all companies alike.

Transform Post-Industrial Challenges into An Opportunity

During a critical time of technological advancement, companies and individuals can, through proactive L&D training, turn the challenges posed by automation into a positive-sum opportunity that boosts the South African economy. Learning from initiatives seen in the US and the UK, South African firms can also benefit from the synergy of humans and machines achievable through adequate training.


Aspen Zhang is a digital marketing and communication intern at professional training search engine Studying at Columbia University in New York City, Aspen is passionate about developing learning and development related content that delivers modern and efficient solutions for companies and individuals.