The debate surrounding today’s smart machines often reminds me of the legend of John Henry, which dates from the dawn of the Second Industrial Revolution. You may remember John Henry as the "steel-driving man" who went head-to-head against a steam-powered hammer to prove that a man could outperform a machine. He won the contest, but his heart burst in the effort and John Henry died.
In the modern version of that American folktale, machines are coming to take away our jobs again. This time, it is robotics, artificial intelligence, and other digital technologies that will supposedly transform our companies into employee-less buildings filled with automatons. However, as I read through our research at Bersin and the thought leadership being produced throughout Deloitte, I’m seeing a very different story.
For instance, when our Deloitte colleagues analyzed the impact of automation and robotics in the UK from 2001 to 2015, they discovered that more than 800,000 jobs had been lost, but nearly 3.5 million new jobs had been created. Moreover, on average, those new jobs paid nearly £10,000 more annually than the lost jobs.
Based on findings like these, I’ve become convinced that the real story is not an adversarial one in which human is pitted against machine. Instead, the future of work is a story of an augmented workforce—a story of human + machine.
There will be disruptions in the augmented workplace, too. To be able to successfully navigate them, companies and employees will need to act in ways that help ensure human + machine adds up to a sum greater than its parts.
Companies Will Need to Redesign Work
To take full advantage of smart machines and build augmented workforces of people and machines, companies should rethink the design of work itself, as well as their talent and workforce strategies.
Garry Kasparov, who was the world’s highest-ranked chess player in 1997, when IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer beat him, provides a good illustration of this in his book Deep Thinking. In it, Kasparov described a surprising chess match in which all the players used computers, and a pair of amateurs beat the grandmasters.
“Their skill at manipulating and coaching their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants,” explained Kasparov. He concludes that weak human + machine + better process is superior to strong human + machine + inferior process.
The lesson for companies is that they must design settings, processes, and jobs so that humans and machines can work effectively together. There is a lot of work to be done in this regard: in our 2017 Global Human Capital Trends survey of more than 10,000 business and HR leaders, 41 percent of the respondents reported having fully implemented or having made significant progress in adopting cognitive and AI technologies within their workforce.
Another 34 percent said their companies were conducting pilot programs. Yet, only 17 percent of the executives said they are ready to manage an augmented workforce of people and machines working side by side.
Employees Will Need to Adopt New Roles and Behaviors
From the individual perspective of employees, human + machine means learning how to change how they operate and learning to work more effectively with machines. Virtually all of us are already doing this, although we aren’t always aware of it.
I have two small children who play outdoors every day in the rainy Pacific Northwest. Unsurprisingly, we also have to vacuum the wood floors in our home every day. Or, at least, we did until the arrival of Jerry, our robot vacuum. But, buying the machine didn’t mean we could ignore vacuuming altogether. Now, before they go to school, the kids make sure the floors are cleared so Jerry doesn’t get waylaid by a toy or the cat. To take full advantage of the robot vacuum, we had to take on new roles and develop new behaviors.
It’s no different at work. As companies adopt smart technologies, employees need to take on new roles and behaviors. Those of us who do that successfully are likely to have bright futures; those of us who don’t will likely struggle.
We are seeing this kind of cognitive collaboration between human and machines taking place throughout companies. In corporate recruitment, for example, new technologies are increasingly used in sourcing and selection processes that used to be conducted by recruiters. But this has not eliminated jobs: The work of recruiters has shifted and now, they are adding value by building psychological and emotional connections with candidates and constantly strengthening the employment brand.
There is tremendous amount of value to be reaped from smart machines. To harvest it, company leaders should interweave human + machine, from both an organizational and individual perspective. But, if they are mindful about identifying the strong suits of humans and machines, and mindful about the changes needed to field a truly augmented workforce, then human + machine will surely add up to more than the sum of its parts.
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