Not All Admins Want to Be Strategists

One of AI's biggest promises around automation is also one of its biggest threats.

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Aug 9, 2023

I know, I know…yet another post about artificial intelligence and all the impact it’s going to have, yada yada yada. Trust me, I’m kind of over it, too. But much like climate change, Covid, and documentaries about Wham!, AI is ubiquitous and here to stay.

While we have only scratched the surface of how AI may impact work now and in the future, we can certainly start to see the impact it’s having on people, especially when it comes to speculation about job security.

Articles like those proclaiming the top 10 jobs AI will replace are helping fuel that anxiety, as is the World Economic Forum announcing that 40% of all working hours could be replaced by large language models like ChatGPT.

Assurances that AI will also create jobs is slim comfort for those whose jobs are on any of those replacement lists.

Another slim comfort is the promise that AI will handle all the administrative work, thus freeing up mankind to focus on strategy, art, and all things metaphysical in the universe.

First of all, I keep seeing AI being used to make the Pope wear a puffy jacket or create a parody Instagram account of Keanu Reeves doing funny things, which seems to be the opposite of administrative work. Second of all, the reality is that there is a large percentage of the working population who like administrative work. In fact, they thrive on it.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether a job has “administrative” in the title, either. Think about every team you’ve worked on. There’s usually a few people who happily take on the maintenance of a spreadsheet, offer to do data entry, or endlessly audit checklists.

I know that as a people manager, I had my “go to” administrative folks, especially in recruiting. They excelled when it came to preparing candidate packets, scheduling interviews, collecting feedback, and prepping paperwork to make an offer. They panicked when I started talking about strategic partnering, workforce planning, or even sourcing. I think about those employees when the topic of AI comes up because they are the most vulnerable and least prepared for this brave new world.

You know your people. There’s an excellent chance that when I described past employees, you nodded your head in agreement. So what’s a good manager to do to help teams navigate the coming conflict:

Assess skills. There’s a difference between preference and ability. Assess whether some of your more administratively-inclined people are focusing on that work because they don’t know how to do more strategic work.

Assess interest. Listen, sometimes people just like to do a certain kind of work, and loving the work itself is a key component to career success. You can’t love everything you do every day, but if you take away every aspect of what people like to do, you’re going to have some issues.

Acknowledge the benefit of administrative work. It’s easy to throw all admin work into the same bucket, but not all admin work is created equal. Data entry and manual scheduling might make some of us want to claw our eyes out, but sometimes human intervention is helpful. Monitoring automated activity is important because mistakes can happen. And who among us has never sent a message to see if someone’s calendar really is blocked or can we move it?

Prepare for change. I worked with an employee whose primary role was data entry — plugging in information about new hires, employee changes, location updates. You name it, she did it. And while some days frustrated her (particularly Mondays with a lot of new hires), she enjoyed it and was pretty good at it. She only started complaining and growing difficult when she heard of a possible shift to automation, which would have a massive impact on her role. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to do something different; it was the fact that no one talked to her about it.

If someone’s role is going to be impacted, don’t wait for a rumor to be their source of information.

Bottom line: The human element of AI disruption can’t be ignored. Change is coming. It just depends on whether we are ready for it. The good news is that even the most stalwart detractors can be won over. I remember my mom scoffing at word processors, claiming they would never replace typewriters…until she actually got one and was so happy to never have the keys lock up again.

In the case of my mom, it would have been easy to focus on the technology and ignore the person. But her company was smart. It involved the users in the planning, ensured they received the appropriate training (both technical and change-related), and ensured management knew how to handle it.

Basically, technology is just a tool. How people use it and talk about it may or may not disrupt the workforce.

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