What would you think of a general who tried to kill his own troops? Perverse? Crazy? How would you feel if you were one of his troops? When it comes to automation, that's the way it seemed to workers—and not a few managers—some 20 years ago. Automation was perceived as a lethal weapon to use on your own employees. So badly misunderstood was the concept of automation that it was feared by workers and misapplied and poorly explained by managers.
The very word "automation" was verboten. Managers got around it by using eupHemiäms like "modernizing" or "updating" or just "investing in new equipment." Workers and their unions saw the word and the concepts behind it as a threat to their jobs. The generals were out to kill the troops, and the troops formed up against them.
This misunderstanding persisted from the end of World War II until something called the "global economy" emerged. That began to kill off not only some American troops but the generals as well. American business was now "attacked" by overseas companies whose troops—and generals—were paid far less than ours, yet still produced and delivered high-quality goods and services.
But as companies struggled to compete with their new, low-cost competitors, people began to see automation in a whole new light. Over time, automation came to be viewed less as a menace and more as what I'll call "the wave front of the industrial revolution"—a way to increase our competitiveness in the global economy.
That was never more clear to me than when I toured the exhibit halls of the huge material handling show ProMat 2007, which took place last January in Chicago. I was struck less by the pervasiveness of automation in the exhibits than with the seemingly complete acceptance of the technologies and concepts of automation. Everyone there—exhibitors, visitors, buyers and sellers—seemed utterly at ease with the notion of the increasingly automated distribution center.
There are still some die-hards who continue to take a neo-Luddite approach to automation and say we should destroy all the back hoes and give everybody shovels, spoons even! That way everyone can be employed.
Yes, there is something called "structural unemployment," which means that engineering advances and invention make some jobs, some kinds of work, obsolete. Think of data processing before modern computers and software. Carbon paper and typewriters. Switchboard operators. Or distribution centers before bar coding, before hand-held communication devices, before e-mail and cell phones, before WiFi and RFID. All of these technologies replaced other techniques. All of them rendered some kinds of work obsolete. They also created whole new categories of jobs. Thirty years ago, software engineering was science fiction. Today it's a huge industry. Such is the nature of the "creative destruction" as Joseph Schumpeter termed it, of automation in the free enterprise, free market world.
Seemingly, American warehousing managers and their employees are no longer at war over advanced technologies. The evidence for this is the ever-growing amount of training automation vendors offer their customers to keep employees productive and competitive in the increasingly global distribution world. Hard to believe there was a time when automation was badly misunderstood and feared.
Many a manager in decades past spoke of automation as a way to eliminate jobs, rather than enhance them and create now ones. Many a union fought automation, and who can blame them? Today, judging from ProMat '07, the ever-changing technologies of automation are seen for what they really are: the only way for American warehousing and industry in general—the generals and the troops—to survive in the global economy.