In the 1960s General Motors was the biggest car manufacturer in the world and its home, Detroit, was the epicentre of the global automotive industry. In 1976, at its peak, nearly half a million people were employed by the city’s car industry - that’s almost 30% of Detroit’s highest population figure.

These well-paid jobs meant that the city expanded, wealth increased, and the city even gave its nickname to the Motown record label. And yet a decade later, the city was in decay. Unionisation, racial segregation and monopolisation from larger manufacturers played a part, but what really accelerated the decline was competition from the Far East. Nissan, Honda and Toyota all did what Ford, GM and Chrysler could do but they did it faster, cheaper and more reliably through automation.

In our race to automate, we sometimes forget that small businesses are not just businesses.

We’re at a similar point in the mortgage industry. Advisors are under pressure to do more - write more mortgage business, sell more protection, be faster with documentation. And they’re being given the tools to do it. Choosing the right mortgage for your customer has never been easier, and protection products are just a click away too. And that means that fewer people can do more work, meaning that 10 advisers can do the job of 20. It means you don’t need someone to set appointments, or to input documents, or to do a multitude of other administrative tasks. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

Well, no, not always. In our race to automate, we sometimes forget that small businesses are not just businesses. They’re a livelihood for their employees, some of whom have been there decades, and businesses feel a responsibility to them. I’ve heard stories of companies refusing to get a coffee machine because it will do the tea lady out of a job, and of brokers refusing to upgrade software, asking “what will my administrator do?” Small businesses have a far greater impact on local communities than their multinational counterparts based in major metropolises. They and their employees directly contribute to the microeconomy, providing wealth and jobs for others and helping their community prosper.

But the refusal to automate, however well-intentioned, can only result in the decay of that business; today, there is no tolerance for slow and archaic. I think that the fear of automation comes from a deep misunderstanding about what it’s for. Let’s go back to the car industry of the 60s and 70s as an example.

Japan - architect of the acceleration of the decline of the US car industry - wasn’t actually making cars with robots. It was just automating the low value, high touch processes that had been done by hand up to that point. People were still needed on the production line, they were just more efficient. The drive for Japan to produce more cars and to go after the global market came in response to macroeconomic conditions - the oil crisis, exchange rate pressures and domestic competition - and so instead of automation reducing the number of jobs, it actually helped increase it.

Likewise, with mortgage advice businesses there is pressure from larger competitors and a turbulent economy. It’s essential that businesses become more efficient, not to reduce operating overheads, but to increase the potential for revenue. Instead of reducing the number of advisors, being more efficient means that individual advisers can do more and so the business can afford to employ advisors, and people to make the tea or to set up diaries or to chase up applications.

If it’s done right, the human cost of efficiency isn’t a cost at all.