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What is zero-sum automation?

Have you heard of zero-sum automation?

It’s a term coined by Harvard Business Review to described their findings that the productivity gains from automation tend to be offset by the losses due to process inflexibility.

There are a few reasons for this:

  • The automation are not readily adaptable to changes in the external environment.

  • The automation require specialized, highly technical skills to reprogram and debug.

  • The automation tend to be “black boxes” that directly replaces a specific task without human-in-the-loop.

In other words, automation work until they don’t. And in today’s VUCA world, automation tend to be made redundant fairly quickly.

To avoid falling into this productivity-flexibility conundrum, companies should consider the following:

  1. Adopting a bottoms-up approach in the identification of automation opportunities, i.e. involving the end users at all stages of the automation program.

  2. Invest in technologies (i.e. low-code/no-code tools) and training to make it easier for business users to reprogram and debug robots.

  3. Choosing the right metrics of measuring success. KPIs like cost and time savings might be easy to measure, but ignore the vast and varied potential of automation.


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