Human + Machine might just provide a starting point
President Trump might think that the way to protect workers in the U.S. is to wage trade wars with countries that he believes are undercutting the prices of domestically-produced goods. But it is increasingly obvious that the real issue is the latest wave of automation. Of course, reports like those from the McKinsey Global Institute and Oxford University have been warning for a while that many of the jobs we know today are at risk of disappearing as artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated and widespread. Until recently the threat seemed relatively remote. But a couple of recent announcements from Automation Anywhere, a software company that describes itself as a robotic process automation leader, demonstrate that the takeover of jobs traditionally carried out by people is already underway and gathering pace.
The first development is the opening of what Automation Anywhere calls “the world’s first online marketplace for off-the-shelf, plug-and-play software bots that accelerate business process automation”. The second is the launch of what the company describes as “the only cognitive bot purpose-built to learn from and assist business users”.
The idea is that it provides the ability to automate more easily a greater variety of complex business processes. Automation Anywhere chief executive Mihir Shukla on a visit to London last week talked enticingly of the brave new world that would be created through a “digital workforce” of robots and humans working together so that the robots did the mundane tasks, such as data processing and basic analysis, leaving humans free to spend more time on matters requiring judgement and experience. It is all very persuasive until you realize that in many organizations the mundane roles are all there are. In a call center, for example, the work is pretty much entirely routine. Well-educated youngsters might crave jobs with purpose but many of the people that Mr. Trump and others like him elsewhere in the world appeal to simply want a decent wage for a decent day’s work.
Shukla says that he has not met anybody who once freed from the drudgery of routine work wants to go back. But that is assuming that they have the opportunity to do the better, more rewarding work. As we saw before with the previous wave of automation that brought us Business Process Re-engineering, in many cases organizations use automation to reduce the human headcount rather than to redeploy it. It is commonplace for people like Shukla to talk, for instance, of medical staff being freed to do higher value work by machines carrying out analysis. But few people report seeing that release of resources translated into extra nurses or doctors.
Obviously, as proponents of AI point out, there is no point in trying to hold out against the tide of automation. That would be just as futile as attempting to stop the industrialization of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
However, there appears to be a growing belief that the sort of Nirvana envisaged by Shukla and his colleagues might be the way ahead. In Human + Machine: Reimagine Work in the Age of AI, Paul R. Daugherty and H. James Wilson of Accenture assert: “The simple truth is that machines are not taking over the world, nor are they obviating the need for humans in the workplace. In the current era of business process improvement, AI systems are not replacing us; they are amplifying our skills and collaborating with us to achieve performance gains that have previously not been possible.”
They argue that what they call the third wave of business transformation – the first was the introduction of standardized processes associated with Henry Ford and his production lines and the second was the automation of processes enabled by advances in technology between the 1970s and the 1990s – involves adaptive processes.
However, getting to the point where humans are working with machines in this sort of way requires changes in the way leaders and managers think and behave. In particular, they need to look beyond simply digitizing existing processes. Which is why Daugherty and Wilson have produced a list of “five crucial principles” for leaders looking to head down this route.
- Mindset. This involves assuming a radically different approach toward business by reimagining work around the missing middle, “wherein people improve AI and, in turn, smart machines give humans superpowers”.
- Experimentation. This requires actively looking for opportunities in the processes to test AI and use it to develop completely new processes that can be spread around the business.
- Leadership. Executives must commit their organizations to the responsible use of AI from the start. As a result, they will need to consider the ethical, moral and legal implications of the technologies they are introducing. And the systems themselves must demonstrate clear accountability.
- Data. AI requires extensive amounts of data, and accumulating and preparing that information is one of the biggest challenges confronting organizations using AI. To achieve the ambitious aims of AI, it is essential that this data can flow freely around the business without being caught up in silos.
- Skills. Organisations need to develop “fusion skills” that will enable them to reimagine processes by encouraging collaboration between humans and smart machines.
Roger Trapp: I am a U.K.-based journalist with a longstanding interest in management. In a career dating back to the days before newsroom computers, I have covered everything from popular music to local politics. I was for many years an editor and writer at the “Independent” and “Independent on Sunday” and have written three books, the most recent of which is “What you need to know about business.” @RogerMMTrapp