Everywhere today the news confronts us with deeply held fears of AI and automation. Coverage often focuses on the job loss and social unrest that are viewed as likely to follow. But thinking of AI only as an efficiency-booster and job-killer will be bad for businesses. Optimized for efficiency rather than discovery and experimentation, their innovation and growth will stall. In fact, the promise of today’s breakthroughs is not just efficiency—it’s unleashing value creation and capture in a time of mounting performance pressure. But this will require driving a fundamental shift in the nature of work itself.
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Everywhere today the news confronts us with deeply held fears of AI and automation. Coverage often focuses on the job loss and social unrest that are viewed as likely to follow.
These fears aren’t unfounded: managers across industries have cost targets and technology enables lower-value tasks to move from people to machines. Last year’s movie Hidden Figures vividly illustrates the shift from another era, as NASA’s human computers faced displacement.
But we believe an obsession mainly on technology’s potential for cost-cutting is misguided. Not because of the social implications, but because we think it’s bad business.
In fact, the interests of companies and workers are more aligned. The promise of today’s breakthroughs is not just efficiency – it’s unleashing value creation and capture in a time of mounting performance pressure. But this will require driving a fundamental shift in the nature of work.
As machines do more of what was once human, companies and people who thrive will not be those who guess correctly at the next narrow skillsets, but who cultivate the capacity of their workers to learn faster. This is true both for “on balance sheet” workers and the gig economy. As the half-life of specific skills diminishes, and machines become proficient at tasks including even decision-making, then fundamentally human capabilities become more important: empathy, curiosity, creativity, imagination, emotional and social intelligence, leadership, and the development of other people.
As we rethink work, the focus of all workers will shift from routine tasks. Before, it was typically the preserve of a subset to innovate and constantly increase value for customers over time. In the future, organizations that thrive will be filled with curious life-long learners who bring purpose to work, discover new knowledge by confronting unexpected challenges, and are empowered (and expected) to do much more than execute.
And so leaders focused on optimizing and automating tasks see only half the picture. The more compelling question is, how can we invent fundamentally more valuable ways of working?
Without rethinking work, companies will face a discovery and creativity gap. Optimized for efficiency rather than discovery and experimentation, their innovation and growth will stall. Closing this gap is not simply a matter of training programs for existing knowledge. The real need is for learning that creates new knowledge in the workplace itself, as workers increasingly confront situations that have never surfaced before. How could we redesign our work environments to accelerate this kind of on-the-job learning?
There is a genuine tension here. Executives today must make smart choices as automation and AI create massive efficiencies. Our own organization uses Robotic Process Automation and assists clients with it, and we are very aware of the options to substitute capital (currently cheap) for labor.
Companies that navigate this tension will be the ones that focus everyone on how to create more value for customers and for the business. Machines can design exquisitely to specifications, but for the foreseeable future, the best way to differentiate and grow revenue is by combining technology with human ingenuity, empathy, and creativity.
As we face the work of the future, how do we get from “here” to “there”? Small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion:
Engage workers as essential collaborators as you explore how and where work gets done. Millions today are already freely committing billions of hours, across distant locations, to co-creating products and services they care about. Why wouldn’t they do the same for their own future? For this to succeed, leaders have to really believe in it. Successfully reimagining the work of the future– the who, where, and how of what gets done – can only happen if you truly view talent as an essential ingredient in competitive advantage, not just as a cost.
Create an entire worker experience that accelerates performance improvement. This goes way beyond asking workers for their ideas. Pick a single front line work environment that is pivotal to performance, and charge workers there with a purposeful goal or question. Using a systematic approach, create the space for them to experiment. Track key performance metrics, particularly those related to value delivered rather than just cost of delivering, and iterate as you learn.
Rethink your efficiency conversations. It goes without saying that companies need to be smart with their money; we are decidedly not advocating waste or imprudent financial decisions. As Tom Friedman has said, if a machine can do it, a machine will do it, and there’s no sense in fighting that. But focusing too much on cost reduction is unsustainable. How many companies have cut themselves to growth without sustaining at least an equal dose of innovation? So, use conversations about efficiency to drive strategic discussion about quality, reputation, and customer value. Any CFO will look at multiple ways to reinvest financial capital. Why would we not do the same with human capital?
Capturing the massive opportunity of today’s breakthroughs won’t be simple. But we’ll make it harder on ourselves if we keep obsessing over scalable efficiency.
The biggest business, economic, and public policy issue is that we must rethink work and help people cultivate the capabilities required to succeed in this new kind of work. Until employers are able to help people strengthen agility and passion, we will continue to have a discovery gap and fall prey to the efficiency trap.
To return to Hidden Figures, if you’ve seen the movie, you know that the real challenge was not computational, but one of imagination. That’s why we are optimistic about the future. Companies and workers need the same thing: environments where humans engage in more fulfilling and inventive work that draws out more of their potential, augmented by technology to perform routine tasks. In that future, the rewards will be significant for both companies and their workers.
More Info: hbr.org
Categories: Money Matters