Usually, in times of economic crisis and recession, companies tend to increase their investments in automation. Recent government decisions and announcements from policy makers across Europe, however, might counteract the trend this time. For example, in Germany, there are federal plans to grant companies with fewer than 250 employees up to €50,000 monthly until the year’s end to keep them in business. Even prominent brands like Deutsche Lufthansa will soon benefit from state rescue packages that will allow them to continue operations in times of minimal demand. The Austrian government will assume a 100% state liability for emergency loans of up to €500,000 for companies in need. The European Parliament is discussing a €2 trillion economic recovery package to ensure that employees can keep their jobs during the coronavirus crisis, while the European Commission is already offering state-supported short-time work.
All of these developments raise one important question: As companies take advantage of public financial support programs to continue operations and keep people working, what are their incentives to invest in automation to reduce their workforce, enhance their crisis resilience, or drive more flexibility of their supply chains? Business leaders across Europe are going to face some severe conflicts of interest as they evaluate their automation options. We believe that decision makers should consider two key opportunities to prepare for the future:
- The intent of EU recovery programs is to avoid rising unemployment in Europe. Therefore, recovery funds will be bound to keeping the current workforce untouched instead of reducing it through automation. Companies that want to become more autonomous should focus on turning existing jobs into more fulfilling and value-added ones by automating repetitive, painful, dull tasks. This requires a change toward a culture where employees perceive machine-learning models, bots, and worker analytics tools as their buddies and assistants, not as job killers, and it likewise requires new job profiles with development plans for every employee to become successful in a new job. Such an approach will definitely be welcomed and approved by working councils across Europe.
- The EU could make for a globally competitive automation case by marrying AI and data privacy. As AI-driven bots and other smart automation technologies require lots of training data to deliver useful results, collecting this data while complying with GDPR seems an insurmountable contradiction. I believe that the contrary is the case, however: EU-based companies could immediately start collecting and sharing their training data sets in an anonymized way, leveraging an open source-like, EU-wide data sharing platform. This would rapidly create a massive source of training data that could be reused by other companies, generating a competitive edge for EU companies while following GDPR. Moreover, the learnings from this journey add to the EU’s IP and could serve as a role model to the rest of the world.