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The State of Automation - Part 4

During previous weeks we’ve been analysing the impact automation and disruptive technologies will likely have on the publishing industry. We’ve explored the innovations on the horizon and how the different roles in book publishing will be affected by them in the short, mid and long-term future.

Automation will have a massive impact on publishing, there is no doubt whatsoever about that. But whether this impact is negative or positive depends greatly on the industry response. Will publishers let innovation happen to them? Or will they act quickly to understand how new technologies work and can be applied to their organisations, then evolve their working practices and reskill their workforce accordingly?

In The Book Industry Study Group’s “State of Supply Chain” survey conducted earlier this year, 33% of respondents said they were somewhat or very concerned about the potential to be replaced by technology or artificial intelligence. This week, in our final post of this four-part series, we look at survival and what publishers, and those who work in the industry, can do to confront the new reality of what many are calling the fourth industrial revolution.

Knowledge is power

If the last 20 years have taught us anything it’s that rapid innovation can, and will, gobble you up if you’re not prepared for it. And most industries have suffered, some more than others, at the hands of disruptive technologies they were completely ignorant about and ill-prepared to respond to. This is a lesson we all must learn from.

Publishers, who traditionally tend to adopt a rather cautious approach to new technology, will need to know exactly what is around the corner when it comes to automation. Not knowing will mean not being able to respond quickly enough when the world around them is transforming at break-neck speed.

Publishing houses which are aware of these developments, those prepared to take an open-minded approach and start to experiment, and those proactively seeking ways to use automation to their benefit, will automatically be in advantageous positions.

Humans are (still) essential

A survey conducted by Evolve in 2016 revealed that the most in-demand skills in the workplace are “the ability to work cooperatively, flexibly and cohesively”. These soft skills are areas where humans usurp robots (well, at least for the next 15 years, which is when experts are predicting computational power will equal the human brain). Recognising this is key.

While AI will do a fantastic job at automating a variety of tasks, in most cases the incorporation of AI technology is at its most powerful when it interacts with humans and benefits from the creativity, imagination and judgement of the human brain. To this end, being able to harness automation-driven technology and play to its strengths but also to align it with human capabilities, will give publishers an edge.

In the real world, this can be applied in the editorial department, for example, where AI can be used to do the heavy lifting when it comes to proofing manuscripts, but the process will still need to be overseen by human eyes. Or in the production department where AI can be applied to a great deal of production tasks, however taking judgement calls and making business-critical decisions on print runs, for example, will still need to be made by humans.

Next gen workforce

Many believe that in a world of automation the only people who will survive will be those who came out of the womb coding and that only employees with an intimate understanding of the latest tech will be of any use in the future. Although rather exaggerated, this is to some extent true. As technology will play a much more influential role in our working lives, job seekers who are tech savvy and can prove that they have the ability to work alongside the latest innovations will always have a cutting edge.

However, on the other side of the coin another view is that widespread automation will make those who have heightened emotional intelligence and a softer skill base more in demand, as reflected by this article on “automation resistant skills” in the BBC.

Either way, it’s highly likely that those who present an innate understanding of technology and a willingness to work with it, while also demonstrating a range of emotional skills will be the most likely to thrive in an automated workplace, and it is these types of candidates who will be most valuable to publishers.

Automation is going to change book publishing as we know it beyond all recognition. It will be as gradual as it will be sudden. It will be as beneficial as it will be damaging. Publishers will flourish and perish, and employees will gain and lose. This is what has happened during every major period of disruption since the dawn of time. But the industry has a small window of opportunity to at least learn about how the publishing business might be affected and what sort of steps can be taken to exploit opportunities afforded by automation as opposed to getting left behind.

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