Tools are a defining characteristic of what it means to be human.
We've always used tools to enhance our capabilities. From the manipulation of stone blades that allowed us to cut deeper than we could with our hands and teeth, to the majestic advances of the Industrial Revolution, which brought with it unprecedented improvements in quality of life — though some would say at a cost.
Today's Digital Era bears many similarities to the Industrial Revolution in that it represents, once again, a period of rapid development and economic change. The critical difference is that, where machines and tools have previously been handled or supervised largely by humans, digital innovation has expanded to a point where new digital tools are becoming autonomous and self-directing.
The possible ramifications of this are subject to constant debate. Automation advocates hail a future utopia, detractors foresee our dystopian demise. Today, we face unique challenges — and tremendous opportunities — precisely because digital technology’s nascent autonomy promises an evolutionary leap in our capacity to grow as human beings.
But how well is it working out for us so far? You might not be able to see it, but be in no doubt, humans and bots are already working alongside each other across the globe and in every sector.
To explore the impact on organizations and their people, my research team at Goldsmiths, University of London, in association with Automation Anywhere, set out to investigate the real-life impact of automation on work. Surprisingly, we found that augmented workplaces score 33% higher on factors deemed to make a workplace more human.
We also looked at the relationship between business performance and workforce augmentation. Investment in automation technology alone results in some improvement in business performance. But investing at the same time in humans supercharges the performance boost companies can expect to gain from the technology investment. Augmented organizations achieve 28% higher overall performance, have 31% better financial performance and are 30% more likely to prioritize strategic goals.
But only 56% of organizational leaders involved in our study feel their employees use Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) to their full capacity. So how can organizations better ready themselves for augmentation and guarantee the maximum return on their automation and AI technology investment?
Our research concludes three key lessons for organizational leaders:
1. Codify your company’s ethics
For many years, Google’s motto was famously “do no evil.” This simple formulation impacted how the company conducted work in areas such as user-interface design and the writing of algorithms which chose which search results to highlight.
What ethical principles guide your company’s actions? Because we intuitively know right from wrong, we often don’t bother to codify our company’s ethical code. Or if we do, the codification concentrates on the regulated front-line area of the business.
But codification can have a far greater positive impact if it’s applied to the whole enterprise. Start with a basic premise, such as “do no evil”. Then, sitting with a company org chart, for each area of your organization write a few sentences explaining how this foundational ethical principle applies to employees, suppliers and customers.
2. Audit key workstreams
Often, we’re so familiar with what we do every day at work that we find it difficult to articulate step-by-step what any given part of our job actually entails. Some parts of the process are so familiar that we take them for granted. Occasionally, we may notice this as we prepare a training for a new employee. But for the most part, everyone just gets on with what they are doing.
Conducting a workflow and process audit finds and makes concrete all of these unconscious assumptions and tasks that are successfully completed day in, day out mainly thanks to your company’s collective muscle memory. Cataloging these makes them available to analysis and optimization. Even before augmentation, the process of auditing, articulating and documenting key processes, and the knowledge that underlies them, creates many opportunities for optimization.
3. Choose areas for augmentation
Having audited your workstreams, identify those areas in which employees are performing repetitive tasks, the inputs and outputs of which follow predictable patterns. These are the tasks which are most open to augmentation.
Work with key stakeholders and trusted experts, including external partners where appropriate, to capture, record and analyze each step of these processes, with an eye to automating where it will be beneficial.
Your goal is to optimize the workflow in a way that allows these steps to be automated using AI or RPA and in a way that not only enhances efficiency but is also sympathetic with the working styles and routines of the human employees who will work alongside the augmentation technology in this workflow.
Once this process is complete, work with your technology partners to capture and automate the relevant steps in the work process. Task them to help you collect data on the effectiveness of the augmented workflow, stage by stage. This data, and the initial experience of augmentation, will give your company the background, skill and knowledge it needs to embrace augmentation across the enterprise as a way of achieving hyper productivity.
Digital technology’s nascent autonomy promises an evolutionary leap in our capacity to grow as human beings. But to reach the full potential of its promise, businesses have to first make work more human.