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Automation is forcing us to radically rethink the company

Fri 15 Feb 2019 | George Zarkadakis

The traditional idea of the secluded, self-contained, self-governed corporation will be massively revised in a world where collaboration inside as well as outside the company is vital for success, says George Zarkadakis

We are currently witnessing the first wave of automation impacting work, usually as a result of companies automating processes with RPA or by deploying chatbots to customer service centres, or – in specific industries such as logistics and warehousing – by reimagining work-intensive processes with the use of social robotics. The work dividends from this first wave of automation are mostly positive. Low level, tedious, hazardous and boring tasks are taken over by machines freeing up time for the humans to do the “higher level” tasks.

This opportunity for redeploying humans and reconfiguring work is certainly a very good message for the future of human and machine collaboration. But it requires that companies think proactively and reskill their workforce accordingly. For example, by deploying a chatbot to take over more than half of customer enquiries a major international telephone operator has managed to increase customer satisfaction, but also reduced the number of contracted workers who were necessary before.

The second wave of automation is yet to come. By “second wave” I mean big data and AI disrupting the business model of industries, and indeed blurring the boundaries that exist between industries today. Take for example the car industry. In a driverless car world the experience of driving will be radically different. Driverless cars will democratise the experience that only the superrich enjoy today: using the car as a second office, or an extension of their living room, while their trusted chauffer does the driving. So the question is: are car manufacturers ready for this profound transformation of their industry? Do they have the right skills to design, build and deliver these new experiences for their customers?

Thus work will change is three fundamental ways: some tasks will be automated and taken over by machines. Some tasks will be “augmented” by the machines, so that humans are empowered to do more with less. But there will also be “new work” and “new skills” that will be required because of the aforementioned, second wave of the AI disruption.

Jobs are a thing of the past

In the Fourth Industrial Revolution the biggest challenge for every business will be “speed to capability”. By those terms I mean how quickly a company can retool itself, both in terms of technology and skills, in order to perceive, analyse, understand and respond to changing customer behaviour and expectations. Cloud technologies can provide retooling agility, but that is not enough.
Companies will need to reorganize work in order to obtain “human agility” as well. They need to be able to access and deploy a wide range of skills quickly and on-demand.

This means that we must forget the concept of a “job”. This concept is a relic of the First Industrial Revolution where stability was critical for business success, and people were deployed in stable organizational units. In the new world of constant change and shifting trends stability is an obstacle. Human workers will be defined by their skills and not by job titles.

In such a world leadership needs to radically change too.

Instead of a “supervisory” role that ensures processes are dutifully followed by all, the new leaders should be more like orchestra conductors: bringing together diverse talent and technology into a coherent whole that can deliver an excellent performance whatever score you put in front of them.

Such leadership needs a new mindset, and the support of a new generation of systems that enable an agile, diverse and highly collaborative workforce.

“Driverless cars will democratise the experience that only the superrich enjoy today: using the car as a second office, or an extension of their living room, while their trusted chauffer does the driving”

Strategies for effective human/machine collaboration

Humans and machines have been working together for centuries. We are tool-makers and tool-users by nature. We make tools and our tools make us, and yet there is something intrinsically unique about our humanness that persists and prevails, and ultimately “humanizes” technology. This idea of “technology humanization” is behind the practice of design thinking, which has been increasingly applied in shaping the experience of humans interacting with software systems over the past few years.

We now need to scale design thinking beyond software systems and towards an all-encompassing framework in reimagining the human experience of work in the age of intelligent machines. For example: if I am a worker who is “augmented” by an AI system, how can we ensure that the AI system and I interact so that we both improve our performance over time?

Or, if one thinks of virtual workplaces, how can we design virtual worlds so that when workers meet they have the same feeling for cultural bonding that one feels in the physical space of an office building? This is the kind of design framework I believe should guide future transformation strategies.

As we are still in the early days of the “second wave of AI transformation”, many large corporations are too weighted down by legacy systems and processes to really reimagine themselves. However, as always, there are certain forward-looking companies that are already emerging as leaders in the business of radical organizational change.

The journey to becoming an AI company, fit to compete and win in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, starts from understanding that the real competitive advantage comes from unlocking human potential. The “age of the machines” is really the “age of the humans”. Unlocking human potential means empowering experimentation and collaboration, as well as capitalizing on the power of team diversity. I see several companies that are moving in that direction, by scaling agile practices, breaking down silos, and transforming into platforms of innovation.

Rethinking the “company”

The traditional idea of the secluded, self-contained, self-governed corporation will be massively revised in a world where collaboration inside as well as outside the company is vital for success. For example, as companies transform into platforms they need to consider how to incentivise a wide range of participants in adding value to the platform. These participants may be customers, or suppliers.

Data self-sovereignty will catalyse the need for new revenue models, quite possibly by leveraging cryptonomics as well as new forms of governance whereby impacted communities are included in decision-making. In this vision the future of companies will evolve into interconnected ecosystems with a purpose beyond the mere maximization of economic performance.

Join me at Big Data World.

George is presenting at Big Data World, taking place at ExCeL London March 12-13th. BDW and its colocated events attract over 20,000 IT industry professionals.

Experts featured:

George Zarkadakis

Digital Lead
Willis Towers Watson

Tags:

AI automation digital transformation machine learning robots rpa
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