New & Next

The Robots Are Coming: AI and the communication profession


Think about all the innovation and change we’ve experienced in the 20 years since the internet got serious. Now, imagine all of that was just the beginning. A curtain-raiser. A proof-of-concept for the change ahead of us. That’s the potential reality facing all of us today.

We live in an era that the World Economic Forum’s executive chairman, professor Klaus Schwab, has called the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

It is a time when a blinding array of emerging technologies are all converging to reshape our society, organizations and lives. These technologies range from artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language generation and cognitive analysis to the Internet of Things, virtual reality, augmented reality, nanotechnology and many others.

All these technologies will profoundly impact our world by essentially doing one thing: automation. That is, assuming a growing number of both the physical and cognitive tasks we once regarded as “human” and doing them faster, better and cheaper than we ever could.

Automation, our society and our organizations

This automation will deliver enormous benefits to humankind. We know about the innovations emerging in health, transport, communication and many other areas. We’ve all heard about driverless vehicles traversing our roads, nanobots coursing through our veins and robotic bees pollinating our flowers.

At the same time, these new technologies are beginning to help our organizations dramatically improve customer value, talent, innovation, collaboration, agility and productivity.

But, while there are many positives, our journey to an automated future won’t be all smooth sailing.

It will be marked by many challenging moral, ethical and leadership questions. One of the most critical challenges will be the way we lead our people through relentlessly accelerating change, job replacement, restructuring, re-skilling and dramatically changing work practices.

Automation and corporate communication

Corporate communicators will be right in the middle of this change.

To begin with, a growing number of the tasks we perform today will be taken over by machines. Automation will become increasingly prevalent in creating, organizing, informing and publishing content. It will streamline much of what we do, starting with the routine tasks before, over time, moving on to the non-routine as well.

At the same time, our organizations are going to need the support and leadership of communicators more than ever before. They will need us to:

  • Bring the future to life to help set the direction and drive the impetus for change.
  • Bring everyone together (including partners and stakeholders), align them to customer and organizational goals, move them rapidly forward and change direction when needed.
  • Drive knowledge and understanding across the organization to a new level.
  • Lead the charge to build new capabilities across the organization.
  • Lay the foundations for greater levels of collaboration and innovation.
  • Provide the context for making and accepting business decisions, which will sometimes be difficult and/or hard to understand.

Two forces, two choices

When you bring these two forces together—the automation of our teams and the growing needs of our organizations—it becomes clear that our profession has two choices before it.

The first is to keep doing what we’re doing, but do it faster and better. Clearly, this is a positive outcome, but it has two significant downsides. We will miss an enormous opportunity to expand our influence, impact and the value we create.

And we will experience pressure to decrease the size of corporate communication teams, because fewer people will be needed to perform the same tasks.

The second option is to raise the bar. In other words, expand the role of corporate communication to meet the needs of our radically changing organizations. This has the potential to dramatically increase the value of what we do and the demand for (and investment in) our services.

Our stake in the future

So, if you choose the second option, what could you be doing now to prepare? The following are five initiatives that could help you bring this opportunity to life. None of them are new. They can all be started now. And they will all help to create not just opportunities for the future, but stronger teams today.

The five initiatives—our stake in the future—are:

  • Strategic alignment: Communication as the ties that bind.
  • Transformation: Communication as the champion of change.
  • Advocacy: Communication as the voice of the people.
  • Knowledge: Communication as the cult of the curious.
  • Education: Communication as the voice of the future.

The prognosis for the communication profession is incredibly positive, provided we can embrace the opportunities and navigate the challenges that this new wave of automation will bring.

The robots are coming, so get ahead—or get out of the way.

This article is an edited excerpt from a newly released discussion paper, “The Robots Are Coming: AI, automation and the future of corporate communications.” This paper seeks to spark a conversation about how technology could profoundly change the communication profession and what we could be doing today to prepare. 

Wayne Aspland

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