If we peer into the future of LIS careers, are there indicators that might signal what types of LIS jobs are most at risk for being automated or taken over by smart machines? (See Will smart machines compete for LIS jobs for more background on this issue.)
Although automation is likely to impact different areas of LIS work in terms of when, and by how much, these changes disrupt our assumptions, authors Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby suggest 10 job characteristics likely to result in worker replacement (or displacement) through automation in their Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines (HarperCollins, 2016).
Job characteristics that lend themselves to LIS job automation
According to the authors, the 10 job characteristics most likely to suggest it’s time to start watching your back are:
- Automated systems currently in the marketplace (think conference vendors and their cool new products/services) could do at least some aspects of your job.
- Your job responsibilities don’t include a high level of physically touching or manipulating “things.”
- Those responsibilities do include a lot of basic “content transmission.”
- They also may include a lot of pretty basic content analysis (for example, compiling routine statistical reports).
- Similarly, your LIS work involves coming up with answers to questions that are based on processed data (i.e., numbers).
- You’re the LIS version of a quant, that is, your work is based on doing quantitative analysis.
- A portion of your information or library work tasks can be “simulated or performed virtually.”
- Your work is highly routinized, or could be; as Davenport and Kirby describe this element, “Consistency of outcomes and the criteria on which they’re based is key.”
- The library/information work you do produces data used as the basis for decision support at executive levels (for example, where should we open a new branch library?).
- At least some aspect of your LIS work is based on mastering and applying well-defined, rigid rules (and processes).
I can’t think of any type of knowledge or information work that doesn’t involve at least one if not several of the above criteria. The reality is that if something can be automated successfully and economically, it eventually will be… automated check-out, anyone?
How automation may affect your career
There are several ways automation could affect your job. The first is that aspects of multiple LIS jobs are automated, which enables an individual worker to take on additional tasks. The good news: you can be more productive for your organization, and possibly learn cool new skills. The bad news: fewer information professionals will be needed to complete the same amount of work, thus further contracting a tight job market.
The second is that entire categories of jobs become automated, and entire professional specializations cease to exist. Two questions here: 1) what specializations are most likely to lend themselves to complete or nearly complete automation, and 2) what alternative, less automation-sensitive LIS career paths can we help our potentially displaced colleagues bridge into?
The third is a more positive outcome for both LIS work and professionals. This outcome is based on the hope that through a lot of brainstorming, trial-and-error design thinking, and innovation, we’re able to figure out which of Davenport and Kirby’s suggested “augmentation” strategies enables us to bring our best stuff to our patrons, customers, clients, and colleagues. Stepping up? Stepping aside? Stepping in? Stepping narrowly? Or stepping forward?
Positioning to pivot
Each of these strategies has much to recommend it, and would open up new opportunities for LIS professionals. But all are also pivots from our existing expectations, environments, and grad school curricula.
The one strategy that definitely won’t work is to hope for the best, and leave it at that.
The smart move: hope for the best, plan for the worst. What plan do you need to put in place to make sure that if (some would say when) information work does become highly automated, you’re ready to pivot into your new way of adding value with your LIS skills.