Technology has gotten a bad rap of late. Automation and artificial intelligence are at the center of countless cultural critiques. If the critics are to be believed, we’re on track to complete enslavement at the hands of super-intelligent robots. But how credible are these claims? Are we really headed in the wrong direction, or can the dream of technology contributing to progress be salvaged?

From a business perspective, the questions are different. The manager wants to know if automating her company’s workflow will actually result in the benefits some claim. Is the technology worth its initial start-up costs? Will the switch over from manual processes be time-consuming and confusing? Is everybody else doing it?

Of course, in some sectors, automation has been a normal part of operations for decades. Manufacturing, for example, has been completely transformed. And yet many of those working in industries that haven’t made the switch – some of them experts in their fields – fail to see the writing on the wall (or, for those who understand the benefits of automation, the opportunity). Government relations is an interesting example. In a field that emphasizes relationship-building, practitioners don’t always put enough thought into streamlining some of the more mechanical (but time-consuming) tasks that occur behind the scenes. But the industry is approaching a turning point. Soon, adopting automation won’t just be an opportunity – it will be a necessity. Practitioners should look to other industries to know what to expect.


The Automation Advantage

Our lives have been shaped by individuals who looked at well-established industries and saw faster, more profitable ways of doing things. Henry Ford famously said that, if he “had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Legions of entrepreneurs have been inspired by this quote, which conveys the massive potential of solutions that exist outside of the general public’s frame of reference. And yet, some of the most successful technology-based solutions have also been some of the most intuitive. In cases where automation has been implemented to carry out menial human tasks, it has alleviated frustration, displacing that which was strenuous, time-consuming, or expensive.

Examples include machines that count pills, assemble electronics, and collect municipal waste. The financial gains and increased efficiency that has resulted from the wide scale implementation of these devices have been immeasurable. From a quality assurance point of view, things have never been better. The pharmacist no longer worries that his patients have received the wrong quantity of medication. The robotic arm on an assembly line isn’t vulnerable to fatigue or any other causes of human error.

In the last few decades, the knowledge economy has seen similar benefits thanks to machines that replicate not physical labour, but lower-level mental tasks. Developments in areas such as artificial intelligence and machine learning have been key. Financial analysis is a good example – the use of computer programs to aggregate and analyze large quantities of data is well-established. But the adaptability of automation – which can be implemented in activities such as data entry, database management, and internet link testing – has made it an indispensable addition to companies in various sectors.


Automation in Government Relations

While automation may have some uses in the day-to-day lives of many government relations analysts, technologies that solve problems unique to the field are rarely implemented. Some of these could be hugely beneficial. Consider the time and resources required to monitor proceedings such as debates and committee meetings. In the last two weeks, 737 of these proceedings have discussed the subject of education*. These discussions occurred within parliament and the legislatures of every province. What might this mean for GR practitioners tracking education policy? Of course, it depends who you ask. For analysts, it could mean countless hours of scouring government transcripts, CPAC, and legislative broadcasts. For directors and executives, it probably means allocating a lot of unnecessary resources to these activities.

The technology necessary to automate every step of the government-monitoring process exists, and it’s about to take hold of the GR industry. Why now? For one, though monitoring automation has been around for some time, recent developments in the fields of artificial intelligence and natural language processing have made some technologies particularly well-suited to government monitoring. Tracking mentions of a particular brand in the media is one thing. Being able to define relationships between search terms is another. For example, a program that can be “told” the difference between apple and Apple (the fruit and the company) can provide smarter, more effective filtering. This means better results, especially in situations where complex issues need to be tracked.

But there’s another reason GR departments are about to embrace automation, and for many, it may be the most compelling reason. Many sectors have already been radically changed by the introduction of automation. Within these sectors, there’s no shortage of companies that illustrate this basic point: once the benefits of automation become common knowledge, those unwilling or unable to adapt rarely survive for long. It doesn’t matter if you’re an analyst or director – in the era of ultra-efficiency, the continued use of antiquated methods of gathering government information could have grave consequences.


The Argument Against

Fears related to automation and unemployment are frequently argued away by those who study the historical resilience of industry. These individuals claim that when automated technologies takeover menial tasks formerly performed by human beings, they create higher-skilled, knowledge-intensive jobs. Society adjusts, they say, promoting certain types of education to close skills gaps. Statistics that point to the creation and engineering of new technologies are cited.

Real-world difficulties arising from current attempts to overhaul industries are harder to dismiss. Healthcare is a great example. In Canada, electronic healthcare records have been somewhat unreliable; they’ve incurred high costs and resulted in serious privacy concerns. A notable breach occurred when Cancer Care Canada decided to mail paper copies of personal health data to patients (Canada Post subsequently lost thousands of these records). Issues have also arisen in the United States. A New York Times article describes how the digitization of health care has, in some cases, failed to prevent and even been the cause of some serious medical mistakes.

To be frank, questions of whether automation is good for society as a whole are beside the point. The unstoppable forward march of industrial and technological development is one of history’s most bankable lessons. This doesn’t mean we need to take a pessimistic view. After all, as the author of the New York Times article says of the practice of medicine, “evidence shows that care is better and safer with computers than without them.” When decision-makers in the life-saving sector are so sure of the benefits of automation that they’re willing to overhaul their day-to-day operations to achieve them, smaller organizations and departments should take note. Even in the largest, most sophisticated government relations teams, the risks of changing the way things are done are not nearly as immediate or far-reaching as they are in the health care industry.


The Bottom Line

There are always challenges associated with the implementation of a new business process. In some areas – such as health care – these challenges are extensive; in others, they’re minimal. When it comes to streamlining the government-monitoring process within a GR department, an initial shift in attitude (based, perhaps, on a simple cost-benefit analysis) could be enough to transform operations for the better.


* based on a search through Gnowit’s HansardWatch platform

Feature Image Courtesy of: ralphbijker