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Innovation will bring opportunities, not just automation

It's undeniable that we're living in an age of technological change – but do we tend to be overly alarmist about it? Almost a quarter of jobs will be automated in the next seven years according to figures from Gartner and, forecasting a more extreme automation scenario, robots could take over up to 47 per cent of jobs in the next few decades. These are some of the figures presented at BNP Paribas's Cash Management University, which took place in Paris last week.

Unforeseen job creation

But inspirational speaker Laurent Haug argued that technology could create as many jobs as it takes away. This is positive news for those working in finance, often said to be a sector at risk of losing jobs to software and new technologies. Haug urged the audience of cash management professionals to take some comfort from thinking of all the jobs that used to exist in the past that are no longer needed, from street lamp lighters, to type setters, to leech-hunters or 'knocker-uppers' (used in Ireland to wake people up, in the days before most people had alarm clocks, let alone smart phones). Another example of how technological developments in the past have unexpectedly created more jobs than they made redundant is the digitalisation of telecommunications and ultimate adoption of mobile and smart phones – taking the example of the US telecom AT&T, which employed 390,000 phone operators before the era of mobile phones. Now they employ just 18,000 – a massive reduction, but far more jobs have been created in telemarketing and call centres, giving one example of technology creating jobs in unforeseen ways.

A helping hand from automation

Rather than fearing automation and replacement, we should be somewhat reassured by the idea of entering a new phase of machine-human complementarity, in which artificial intelligence and robotics, such as drones, will help us do repetitive, uncomfortable or dangerous jobs. One of the consequences of this is that the human-factor will become a more important differentiator in services, such as customer service.

Haug had some advice for financial professionals facing a workplace that seems to be increasingly automated: focus on the qualities that make us human, which could include knowledge of the business and business relationships. He also urged us to remember that innovation isn't just about technology but can apply to all areas of business, whether it's the business model or continuously finding better ways of working. We should also remember that our suspicions and fears about new technology aren't new – even in Plato's Phaedrus, written in around 370 BC, the characters express the idea that if humans rely on the invention of writing, they will lose the ability to remember anything by themselves. Of course since then, we've moved on and can't image a world without the written (or printed) word.

Cash management not a commodity

Earlier on that afternoon, BNP Paribas's global head of cash management, Pierre Fersztand, echoed some of these ideas on innovation, saying that the bank intends to invest in IT and new technology over the next three years, but will also continue to invest in people. He said: “I am convinced that cash management is not just a commodity but a question of men and women working within the organisation, solving daily issues and bringing together ideas.”

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