“Work is work, and what matters to the worker is neither the product nor the technical process, but the pay, the hours, the attitude of the boss, the physical environment. The application of [technology] to industry will mean very little. What they will care about is what their fathers and mothers care about today—improvement in the conditions of labor.”
- Aldous Huxley
The quote above was written in 1950, imagining a working world 50 years in the future in the year 2000. Huxley imagined that a huge increase in technological capabilities would change the nature of work substantially and it would be very different from what the farmers and factory workers did in his time.
It’s nearly impossible for today’s working generation to imagine going to the office and seeing rows upon rows of desks with typewriters and adding machines clicking away, with secretaries delivering hand-typed memos and letters to physical inboxes as the primary form of written communication. What was once accepted as rather normal ‘work’ isn’t any longer. What is currently accepted won’t be in the near future, either.
Technological disruption changes the equation of what is acceptable vs not, and more importantly, how we view the world as we make our progress. Sufficiently advanced general-purpose tech tends to alter how we build and operate our world and the shape of our work. Electricity, telegraphs and later telephones, typewriters, calculators, personal computers, the internet and connectivity, everyone knows the major innovations that have disrupted the working world in the last 100 years Now we have AI and Automation, which is already changing how we live and how we work, even if we don’t fully understand it.
There has been a lot of hype and excitement about AI. Philosopher Nick Bostrom has said on the topic of advanced artificial intelligence that many of the brightest, forward-thinking minds continue to be concerned with AI becoming so smart that it would take over the world from us humans. He’s noted that in reality, it isn’t yet very smart or very good, but it is already taking over the world. Tech and deployment approaches for AI have become mature enough to drive changes in much broader and impactful ways than in the past. It took almost a century before a steam engine became mature enough to drive business or industry level transformation. I suspect that AI is already here, and it brings along other aspects of what makes AI possible or attractive -- automation and continuous ops/improvement.
What does this mean? If you look at how most businesses (or industries) are designed and operated, the essence of their designs has not changed fundamentally in over a century. The old patterns masterminded by the previous century’s management scientists and consultants are largely intact: from organizational divisions by functions / geos to how their data, controls, decision frameworks, etc are managed and leveraged.
In ways similar to how combustion engines changed how we think about mechanical force and how we redesigned the world to take advantage of magnified and continuous deployment of mechanical force, automation of work (both manual and cognitive) will enable and drive changes to the widely adopted patterns of how we have designed businesses and industries.
Organizations of all sizes and types have been experimenting with their own AI initiatives or using 3rd party-solutions, but thus far deploying AI and automation at scale has shown to be nontrivial. Finding and optimizing use cases isn’t as commonsensical as managers initially believed. Many times it has felt like a solution in search of a problem even after agreeing on use cases, as organizations have had to find fitting technology providers and competent consultants / systems integrators to implement them. Even successful implementations often failed to help materialize the desired business benefits for many reasons such as realizing only partial free-up of resources, inflexibility in responding to changing processes / systems, and an unbudgeted-for resource allocation to maintain these automation technologies. These consequences negatively impact the desired savings or performance improvements.
Let’s think about today’s knowledge workers. They work with a variety of connected and disconnected systems. They copy and paste from one application to another. They reconcile key information between different programs. They forward emails with file attachments. Humans end up picking up a lot of drudgery of work and serve as the connectors / integrators of disparate systems to make the workflows happen. The company’s business ticks forward, and automation fails to fully free us from the drudgery. Intelligent automation should help, but in practice to date, it has been complicated and incomplete.
This isn’t the shape of advancement we need to propel ourselves into. It isn’t the future of work that we actually want.
To move the needle and accelerate our progress toward an enhanced paradigm of how we design businesses and industries beyond the century old pattern, I believe that intelligent automation needs to become much more intuitive to leverage and deploy to harvest the intended benefits. It should also become much easier to establish expected costs vs benefits of adopting such automation, so the business case is well understood (without much trying) even before the journey begins. Because of this, I imagine an automation model where an integrated bundle of automation capabilities is built as an analog to a business function or an employee’s work, so it is easy to understand the intended benefits and costs of automation.
SKAEL’s Digital Employee is an effective new approach and solution to the automation challenge within organizations. Digital Employees complement and upgrade the teams of people to be more agile, efficient, and resilient, capable of providing greater strategic value to the organization. Digital Employees are designed for business function-specific roles, continue to learn on the job, and can work with other systems and people -- in many ways, as their human colleagues do. As a result, they tend to be far easier to train and deploy (or, should I say employ?), intuitive to collaborate with or retrain as business needs change, and easier to establish their supporting business case.
Digital Employees eliminate drudgery and upscale your human teams by seamlessly integrating with the current infrastructure, information repositories, and methods of communication. For instance, Digital Employees, trained to perform a typical HR function, can take care of executing standardized HR processes like onboarding tasks, and answering routine questions for information or support, freeing up HR professionals to tap into their irreplaceable human skills and knowledge.
“Can you reconcile these two spreadsheets against the main system database? We really need it by tomorrow for the senior management update. So… it would be great if you could do it by tonight. I will review it whenever you are ready this evening. Thanks!” -- This exchange may make you shiver, but it’s how work gets done at many businesses today. What if these kinds of requests could be outsourced to Digital Employees, with a simple message via Slack, Teams or email? What if Digital Employees can understand what we want and deliver it back instantly in the format we need?
Anything an employee could ask someone via Slack, Teams, email, instant messaging, phone, and other common tools, they can ask of a Digital Employee. Digital Employees correctly interpret the request that employees make, access appropriate systems to take care of the request and provide immediate answers in a very human-friendly format.
Doesn’t this sound more like the future we want?
More importantly, a humanistic approach to automation, with Digital Employees and humans working together, will allow leaders to fundamentally reimagine a business function and design, enabling and accelerating digital transformation. It opens up the possibility of a better functioning world where we no longer have to accept the kinds of drudge work we are routinely faced with each day.
This is why I have chosen to invest in SKAEL and actively work with its ambitious team to support its mission.
About the Author:
Richard Jhang is a seasoned senior executive who has worked at tech startups, an investment firm, management/strategy consultancies, and Fortune 500 tech firms. Richard has managed significant growth and scales of businesses globally. He is founder and CEO of STRΛTMINDS and serves on the advisory board of SKAEL.