AI gig economy sets workers and bots on collision course

The future of work has shifted toward a gig economy, with high-value, short-term workers on demand for organizations. The fast turnover and high volume demand AI to reduce friction.

From traditional employees working at one company for a lifetime, to millennial headhunting, to outsourcing and automation, the nature of the workforce is constantly changing. The newest developments, involving AI in the workforce and intelligent automation, have caused as much panic as they have optimism. Employees worry about the permanency of their jobs, value of their skills and longevity of their careers.

Sean Chou, CEO of digital automation platform Catalytic, based in Chicago, has observed this shift toward the AI gig economy, with AI both competing and aiding the new workforce that comes and goes according to enterprise labor demands.

His advice to enterprises? Catch up with the quick labor shift, and use AI and automation to foster high-value, short-term work. Instead of solely focusing on AI for automation and worker augmentation, use AI to find task workers and simplify the employer-employee relationship. 

How has digital automation and the AI gig economy changed the future of work?

Sean Chou, CEO, CatalyticSean Chou

Sean Chou: With automation, it's really become a digital workforce. When you think about automation, and you think about the gig economy, the biggest, most profound change is the transactional volume at which people arrive and leave your organization. The tenure of the average employee has shrunk and shrunk and shrunk. And, now, the gig economy is almost a complete swing of the pendulum. 

The implication of this new workforce is if you have a traditional HR department, and it revolves around the ongoing relationship with employee while they're there -- the dynamic has shifted dramatically, as the workforce composition continues to shift. In a gig economy, HR is not managing benefits, career advancement or a lot of the things that HR departments traditionally do, but doing entirely onboarding and offboarding at scale.

This is where automation becomes a necessity -- and it's the reason why the new gig economy has risen faster in new companies, because they're able to build out an infrastructure that can deal with that scale much more efficiently. Bringing the gig economy into an existing company is harder, because it's such a big change in mindset.

How can an enterprise foster the gig economy? Wouldn't enterprises be more inclined to automate than hire a gig worker?

Chou: Starting historically, the traditional uses for contingent labor were in cyclical businesses, for temporary projects. Staffing answered a real need and helped companies cope with the ebb and flow of demand, without having a huge labor force with a lot of bench time. That's one area where the large company is [a] consumer of the gig economy -- temporary staffing.

If you're a retail store, you can leverage either your own gig economy or workforce if you're large enough -- Whole Foods, Walmart. But if you're too small to do that, then how can you leverage an external company that's providing a marketplace of gig economy [labor]? It largely has to do with either tasks that are oftentimes essential to the delivery of your business or give you a competitive advantage, but are not core to your business.

Fundamentally, even intelligent automation platforms are really only suitable for reasonably repeatable tasks. When you look at what a lot of gig workers might be doing -- a Shiftgig or Grubhub or Uber Eats delivery service -- every gig requires enough human intelligence to put the pieces together.

Some popular gigs, like experiential marketing, hire gig workers to interact with other humans, so an autonomous replacement for that is completely inappropriate. That's where most people are probably going to be doing these gigs, and the good news is that that's very consistent with the rise of the experience economy. Now, there's customer experience, the play experience, supplier experience, and freeing up people from doing these automated tasks lets them do much more intelligent, creative and human-relating tasks.

Is there automation used to help people find gigs, or just automation in business processes that makes it easier to fit in members of the gig economy?

Chou: As enablers of the gig economy, there's been focus on the back-office processes around HR processes, payroll processes and onboarding, because the transaction volume is too high to do in the traditional way. You also have to be really careful with the transactional costs of every worker. Because it's such a short duration, you can't be willing to invest the amount of time that you would with an employee. Automation helps the gig worker be able to come and go more freely, and it reduces the friction.

Automation sometimes becomes a little bit competitive to things that you might otherwise use a gig worker for. If you can automate it entirely, you'll do so. When you start getting to the autonomous delivery vehicles, the development of that technology is direct competition to the gig economy worker. There's both automation as an enabler of the gig economy, as well as automation as sometimes competition to digital gig tasks.

But for other tasks -- for example, I don't see a huge gig economy forming around data entry -- that's where people are looking at intelligent automation. In this case, the formation of the gig marketplace to take on that kind of work took too long, or no one was interested in it, and intelligent automation has come in to solve the problem.

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