Automation is everywhere. The McKinsey report “Where Machines Could Replace Humans – And Where They Can’t (Yet)” says that with currently available technologies, “about 60 percent of all occupations could see 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated”.
It comes without surprise that activities with the highest automation potential are those involving simple repetitive activities (mainly, physical activities or operating machinery) in a predictable environment.
As the report states, “It’s more technically feasible to automate predictable physical activities than unpredictable ones… In manufacturing, for example, performing physical activities or operating machinery in a predictable environment represents one-third of the workers’ overall time. The activities range from packaging products to loading materials on production equipment to welding to maintaining equipment. Because of the prevalence of such predictable physical work, some 59 percent of all manufacturing activities could be automated…”
This brings us to a quite interesting thought: in our days, many technical writers are creating maintenance guides and operation manuals that describe the work that will likely be automated in the future. If this work is automated, this means that quite a big part of the technical writers’ target audience will eventually disappear or change significantly (at least, if we assume that the technical writers’ target audience is humans). How will this change affect the work of technical writers in the next decade?
For example, for years, inspecting antenna towers has been a work for technicians who had to regularly climb and inspect towers (plus, industry standards require an additional inspection after severe wind storms and other extreme weather conditions). Manufacturers of telecommunication equipment, mobile network operators, and regulators have been writing manuals, instructions, and checklists explaining how to perform these inspections.
Today, many mobile operators and manufacturers, including AT&T, Verizon, and Nokia, are deploying drones that are replacing some of the inspection and maintenance work done by human technicians. The drones are equipped with a camera that inspects the tower and sends data to the processing center. A maintenance engineer can now perform up-close inspections of cables and other components high above the ground without leaving the office. Some problems can be even detected and analyzed automatically in real time. Human technicians still might be required for certain tasks, but regular maintenance inspections can be now done by drones and robots that don’t need manuals and instructions written for human technicians.
If you’re a technical writer, it might be a good news for you actually provided that you want and are ready for a change. Manual inspection and maintenance work will be replaced with drones, but now someone need to operate drones, interpret data, and make decisions (although with advances in image recognition and artificial intelligence, even part of this work could be automated in the future). This is a different audience that requires more complicated and sophisticated concepts to be communicated. This means that technical writers with deeper understanding of both technology and information design will be in demand.
The report released by World Economic Forum in January 2016 and called “The Future of Jobs” says: “Our research also explicitly asked respondents about new and emerging job categories and functions that they expect to become critically important to their industry by the year 2020. Two job types stand out due to the frequency and consistency with which they were mentioned across practically all industries and geographies. The first are data analysts, which companies expect will help them make sense and derive insights from the torrent of data generated by technological disruptions. The second are specialized sales representatives, as practically every industry will need to become skilled in commercializing and explaining their offerings to business or government clients and consumers, either due to the innovative technical nature of the products themselves or due to new client targets with which the company is not yet familiar, or both.”
Technical writers can support both of these job types as well as many related jobs. Data analysts still need to know about capabilities provided by the tools they are using. IT and developers still need to understand how these tools can be integrated with other applications and company’s infrastructure. Sales engineers and representative still need to learn how complicated product functionality is aligned with business needs of their customers.
To put things into a historical perspective, think about telephone switchboard operators. Telephone companies wrote entire manuals for operators to explain how to use the switchboards (and even the the tone of the voice when answering a call). Here are two operation manuals from my own collection, one is dated by 1935 and another one is 1970:
When was the last time when you spoke to a switchboard operator?
Although the user manuals written for switchboard operators are now a relic because switchboard operators don’t exist any longer, it didn’t make the overall job of technical writers redundant. Technology advances in telecommunications and new possibilities that the technology opened only made their work more complex and intelligent.
So while automation will eliminate entire professions, readers of the documentation will still be there as long as automation will need to be developed, monitored, managed, and maintained. It’s going to change and demand more complex and more sophisticated documentation, though. So if you’re a technical writer, you should probably think about making your documentation ready for great changes that are happening in all industries right now.
In my next post, I’m going to talk about these changes, how they can affect product documentation, and what you can do about it.