Automation without Layoffs

 

The Great Automation Deception

The Perceived Problem

The availability of robots to perform routine “manual” tasks is perceived by some as a great blessing and by others as a dangerous curse. This perceptional disparity is particularly evident in discussions of the use of robots in industry, where corporate stockholders and executives benefit from robotics by lowering costs and thereby increasing profits. Meanwhile, lower-level employees often lose their jobs, and therefore see automation as threatening to their well-being. The reasons for this perceptual dissonance are not quite as obvious as one might suppose.

The Response

Industrial unions recognize very quickly the threat posed by automation and respond to the industry’s owners by saying, in effect, “Don’t do it! Do not automate!”

The owners and executives don’t yield to these demands, so they enter contract negotiation willing to compromise for a while, but not permanently. The frequent upshot arises from the workers wanting to “stay on the job” – so for some time after automation begins, the workers get to stay on the job, watching the robots do the work. In this way the workers get paid, for a while, not to work.

When the compromise contract expires, the unneeded workers are gone.

The Big Picture

Let’s now take a step back from this scenario and examine the bigger picture. The inventors of automation often imagined that robots would free mankind from the need to do manual labor – that the invention would usher in a future of ease and leisure for all – not just higher profits for a few and job-loss for many more. For industrial owners, however, the objective is greater ease and leisure for themselves. So it would seem that negotiations between the two groups must inevitably come to an impasse yielding to the desires of the owners.

So where is the great benefit to all that the robotics inventors anticipated? Did it ever exist? Is it gone for good? What would have to happen for the workers to get the benefit of the wonderful new technology? Could the unions solve the problem by striking against automation? In the present situation, the owners and workers appear to be faced with an unresolvable zero-sum dilemma. In the end one group must win and the other must lose.

Ultimately, automation is not a problem for industrial business owners. It is, however, a very serious problem for the workers – and I suggest that it is theirs to solve.

Attempted Solutions

It has long been recognized that the problem could be solved if the workers could own the company for which they work. So why isn’t this the norm?

The difficulty has, in the past, stemmed from two challenges:

  1. In most industries the average worker doesn’t earn and save enough to ever be able to afford to buy the machine that he/she operates. Nor can he individually raise enough or borrow enough to overcome this difficulty.

  2. Also the average worker doesn’t know enough about running a business to successfully become a business owner. And, in fact, most worker-owned businesses are very badly run – though not all. There exist some notable exceptions from which a great deal can be learned.

A related issue is one often lamented by business owners, when they complain, “Where can I find employees who will treat the business as if they owned it?” At this point the business owner would like to be able to clone himself, so that the worker clones would see the business as theirs.

The reality is that a worker who doesn’t get to share in the company’s profits will never behave as an owner would. So as long as this condition is not met, the zero-sum paradigm will continue to control the relationship between workers and owners.

A Viable Solution

What would a real solution to this zero-sum dilemma look like? How would we recognize the solution if it were presented to us? My answer is:

  • Owners and workers would find a way to mutually agree on a profit-sharing plan that didn’t favor one group over the other.

  • Workers would be in a position to veto owners’ decisions that would exploit the employees.

  • Unions, if they continued to exist at all, would be re-purposed. Instead of maintaining an adversarial relationship with the owners, they would have a way to foster cooperation between the two groups, in order to consistently arrive at win-win outcomes.

  • As relevant technology becomes available to make the industry operate more profitably, both groups would receive comparable benefits from its adoption.

Such a viable solution actually exists today, for those in the know about the latest developments in organizational development. Part of the solution can be traced to highly successful companies like VISA, Gore & Associates, Semco Partners, and Morningstar Farms, whose pioneering work in self-management demonstrated that those most aware of a company’s needs are those closest to the actual work. The most important take-away from the experience of these companies is that a business is most successful when its managerial decisions are not based on hierarchical “authority”.

Creativity

Most people know intuitively that everything of real value to them is derived from someone’s creativity – be it a toaster oven or a breakthrough in MRI design. An organization that exists for any ethical purpose can be optimized to maximize the creativity of its participants, both individually and collectively. Acting constructively on this knowledge has many great benefits.

The manifestation of creativity in groups is especially relevant; because, while a lone individual’s creativity may suffice to invent something new and valuable, a group is needed to successfully develop, manufacture, market, and distribute the resulting product.

The New Paradigm

In 1981 John David Garcia walked away from a business that he had founded that was worth upwards of $100,000,000 in order to research methods of increasing creativity in groups. He moved from San Francisco to a ranch near Elkton, Oregon and began experimenting with groups of volunteers ranging from 2 people to about 20 people. I joined him in his research on creative group dynamics from 1984 until his passing in 2001. From this research we learned:

  • The most creative size for a group is 7 to 9 people.

  • Smaller and larger groups can be optimized with the proper training.

  • A group is most creative when group decisions require unanimity.

  • A group can learn to routinely make unanimous decisions.

  • Creativity in a group can only be maximized when the purpose of the group is ethical.

  • A thorough understanding of ethics can be learned in the course of a single weekend; while the basics can be learned in just one day, and the fundamentals in under an hour.

  • Learning “active listening” enhances the creativity of group members.

  • When creativity is increased or decreased, so are love, truth, awareness, and personal evolution – and vice versa.

  • A process of shared meditation is highly effective in amplifying creativity in members of a small group.

I call a group, organized as indicated above, an Octologue – though it could just as well be called a Creativity Enhancement Mastermind Group (CEMG) – or any one of a dozen or more apt labels. When such groups form ethical contracts to undertake larger projects, the resulting collaboration is called a HoloMat. HoloMats of more than 150 individuals are called HoloNets.

Before we consider the implications of this new organizational technology, as it relates to automation, I would remind you that, between HoloMatic organization and modern Internet capitalization tools, it is now possible for a HoloMat to afford the “means of production” – thus “employee ownership” can be highly successful now.

Automation Revisited

Imagine now a HoloMat organized to manufacture and market an ethical product or service. And imagine that one or more robots become available that will enhance the manufacturing process and increase profits while requiring fewer people to run the equipment. What happens next?

The workers in this scenario are effectively partners or co-owners of the business – so they aren’t going to fire one another. Instead they are faced with a decision as to how they want to take advantage of the new technology. The choices are:

  • Shorten the workday and maintain the same level of profit,

  • Leave the workday unchanged and ramp up production for greater profits, or

  • Shorten the workday and increase production.

This is the answer to the robotics inventor’s dream of “freeing mankind from the need to do manual labor”. As robotic technology continues to improve, businesses organized as HoloMats can adopt the new technology in such a way that jobs are not lost, workers get to spend the profits that they generate, and all concerned are afforded more free time to enjoyably exercise their creativity. Can you picture a profitable business where the workers receive full salaries plus dividends while only working one day a week – or one day a month?

Conclusion

The most common cause of human death today is poverty. By contrast, prosperity is a great life-saver. It doesn’t take a great deal more prosperity for you to be able to eat better food, wear better clothes, live in a better house or apartment, drive a more reliable car, and receive better health-care.

In order to create universal prosperity, it is only necessary to widely adopt the consensus-based HoloMat in place of the dictatorial bureaucratic hierarchy.

Contact me now, and I’ll be more than happy to help you take your ethical purpose to the “next level”.