Taking the robot out of the human: Why we should not confuse productivity and efficiency

We need to have a more grown up discussion about the impact of technology and intelligent automation (IA).

Currently, the conversation about automation is dominated by lurid headlines about whole swathes of the workforce being made redundant overnight, and the dawning of a new dystopia where intelligent machines have replaced the ordinary human worker.

Instead, we need to be asking a much more pertinent question: “Are existing jobs being done well, and how can they be improved?”

Practically every job today involves work that humans are poorly designed to do, and which we consequently find extremely tedious. Tasks such as taking minutes, entering data, performing administrative tasks, and updating calendars - for all humanity’s brilliance, we are poorly suited to these types of tasks, being by turns forgetful, verbose, sloppy, unpunctual, easily bored, and a myriad of other faults of the human condition.

This is where the ‘robots’ can bring real and immediate value. Even more value can be gained from technology that uses artificial intelligence to mimic the learning, decision-making and actions of humans - known as IA - can take the robot out of the human by handling all the tedious tasks that even the most competent human performs so inefficiently.

Technologies such as chatbots, object/speech recognition, advanced analytics, and natural language processing are already capable of removing many of the tiresome tasks that fill our day, whether it is transcribing text, answering basic customer queries, scheduling appointments, or analysing unstructured data.

What’s striking about these capabilities is not that they are replacing skilled workers, but rather augmenting their abilities by taking responsibility for all the ‘robotic’ aspects of our working lives.

Don’t just take my word for it. Avanade’s latest piece of research found that more than half of global business leaders are confident that IA will augment the human workforce rather than replace existing roles, and an overwhelming majority (86 per cent) believe that their organisation must deploy IA in the next five years to be a leader in its field.

It’s at this point that we must sound a couple of notes of caution. First, there is the danger that we attribute too much importance to IA’s ability to solve the productivity problem that sees UK organisations lagging far behind some of their main continental rivals, taking five days to produce what the French, Germans, and Americans can do in four. This is to conflate productivity with efficiency - two different beasts.

If we fail to understand the correct role of new tools such as IA, we run the real risk of deploying them ineffectively. These technologies can certainly bring massive efficiencies, but greater productivity only follows if they are aligned to the right goals. Intelligent automation must therefore be firmly goal-oriented, and implemented within a wide and well-thought-out strategy digital transformation strategy – not as technological ‘sticking plasters’ aimed to save a few minutes each day for Sally in Accounts.

Secondly, organisations must appreciate that new tools and ways of working require new skills and capabilities from their leaders, both to implement new strategies effectively and to bring the rest of the workforce with them.

There is still a significant “fear factor” when it comes to IA. One of the best ways to overcome this is to demonstrate how much we all rely on IA in our lives already, whether in our personal or professional lives – think Siri, Echo, and customer service chatbots.

These haven’t put valets, PAs, life coaches and personal shoppers out of business, because hardly anyone employs such ‘helpers’. Instead, these technologies outsource the drudgery of our daily lives, and free up the human mind for the tasks at which it excels.

Now apply these principles to a typical modern working environment; the call centre. Workers don’t enjoy the repetitive, mundane task of answering the same questions about store opening times every day; they enjoy applying their knowledge to helping solve customers’ problems, understand nuances, expressing sympathy for the irate customer, calming them down or reassuring them, putting them at ease with a friendly sense of humour, and asking the right questions.

The key is not just to understand the differing capabilities of humans and technology, but to recognise their individual shortcomings. Success with intelligent automation comes from the right layering of human with technological capabilities so both complement each other, and then framing it in a context that demonstrates the value that can result, including a happier, more engaged and more productive workforce.

People may fear the rise of the robots, but they also resent being treated as machines. We have a once in a generation (perhaps once in a century) opportunity to transform the way we work, and give old jobs new meaning and greater satisfaction. Let’s set the machines to work - for us, not in place of us.


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