The impact of computing on work is not new, but it is accelerating. The increasing power of computers and software to perform cognitive tasks is challenging organizations to rethink the design of work and the capabilities their employees need to succeed.
Exciting cognitive computing technologies are now able to perform many tasks once considered solely the domain of humans. Cognitive technologies such as speech recognition, computer vision, and machine learning are converging to produce machines that can talk, see, read, listen, and even learn by watching YouTube videos.
Close to 60 percent of leaders in this year’s survey rated the issue of “machines as talent” “important” or “very important.” Yet, while many executives are interested, few have a strong grasp of the issue or its implications. Capability gaps around the issue are evident worldwide (figure 1). In fact, only 5 percent of executives surveyed believe they have a detailed understanding of how cognitive computing will impact their workforce.
The impact of computing on work is not new, but it is accelerating. An Oxford University study that examined the impact of technology on hundreds of occupations in the United States found that nearly half of total US employment could potentially be automated over the next decade or two.2
The more radical changes are those brought on by cognitive computing—technologies that allow computers to replace tasks previously done by people. With these changes, work can become better, faster, and even safer.
Today, health care workers, customer service agents, sales people, and even retail workers benefit from automation and cognitive technologies, helping them to diagnose and prescribe drugs more rapidly, solve problems, recommend the right product, or simply take an order. Some jobs are being eliminated and others are changing. In the coming era of human-machine collaboration, jobs, organizations, and management practices will need to be thoughtfully and deliberately redesigned. Job rotation will happen more quickly, with shorter lead times. Employees—as well as executives and managers—will need to acquire new skills.
Learn more about machines as talent
An emerging theme in this area is the idea that machines are collaborators, not competitors, in the workplace. Consider, for instance, Associated Press (AP), which is implementing a system to automate the writing of corporate earnings reports. AP’s goal was not to put journalists out of work but rather to increase—by a factor of over 10—the number of companies it covers, from 300 to 4,400. In other words, AP’s scale and reach has increased without increasing its need for labor. Reporters, for their part, can now concentrate on tasks that require more ingenuity and add more value than the routine drafting of earnings reports.3 As Lou Ferrara of AP says, “This is about using technology to free journalists to do more journalism and less data processing, not about eliminating jobs.”
Similarly, as translation programs have become more efficient, the job of a translator has changed to become more like that of an editor.4 E-discovery in litigation is performed with assistance from computers. Amazon is using robots more, redefining warehouse workers’ jobs.5 And the list of examples goes on:
An insurance company allows customers to take photos of their auto accidents and submit them electronically to claims software, which accelerates the claims process.
Barclays now validates the identity of callers through voice recognition instead of by asking them questions.6
Automated fraud detection systems help service agents make more profitable decisions with less extensive training.
At Volkswagen, robots help manufacturing line workers do more work with fewer work-related injuries.7
As more types of knowledge and physical work continue to be displaced by technology, HR and talent leaders can play a major role in this transition.
Business and HR leaders should look beyond the alarmist hype of predictions that employees are doomed to be replaced by thinking machines and advanced robotics.
Talent and learning teams need to understand technology and use “design thinking” as a way to integrate technology into the workplace. By leading the process of “job redesign,” developing hard-hitting training programs, and working with technologists on the implementation of new technology, talent and HR leaders can help ease the transition of these technologies into the workforce and improve productivity and engagement as a result.
Lessons from the front lines
Recent efforts by the health benefits company Anthem, previously Wellpoint, to develop a leading integrated health care platform provide an example of how collaboration between people and machines can advance business goals. Anthem’s platform links data from a variety of sources using a cognitive computer system, allowing employees to more effectively administer customer benefits while reducing overall costs.
In the past, nurse practitioners spent hundreds of thousands of hours analyzing whether proposed treatments were consistent with Anthem’s policies. These decisions involve detailed knowledge of medical science, patient history, and the prescribing doctor’s treatment rationale. Now, the process is partially automated by a cognitive computing system that uses hypothesis generation and evidence-based learning to generate confidence-scored recommendations that help nurses make faster decisions about treatment requests. Over time, confidence ratings in the system, as well as its accuracy, have improved. For some outpatient requests, in fact, the system can automatically approve requests. Throughout the process, Anthem “teaches” the system how to recognize the organization’s guidelines and policies. As one Anthem executive noted, “The more we taught, the faster the cognitive platform learned.”
Where companies can start
Explore and learn: Invest the time and effort to learn about how cognitive technologies can impact business, jobs, and productivity. This is a ripe area for applied research and development within HR as well as with business units and technology teams. What cognitive technologies and advanced robotics solutions are currently being used, and what is on the horizon? The speed of technological innovation means that techniques that appear to be years in the future are coming online faster than ever. The opportunity for HR and business leaders to improve their “sensing” and quickly get up to speed on these advances represents potentially significant frontiers in productivity and work and job design.
Share experiences: Given the scope and speed of advances in cognitive technologies and robotics, there are opportunities for business and HR teams to collaborate with universities, technology companies, and industry suppliers and partners to understand what is coming and identify ways of working beyond the enterprise.
Experiment with new job models: Find opportunities to pilot cognitive technologies and present leaders with options for creating value with them.
Evaluate what does and does not work: Review and analyze new combinations of technologies and robotics and their impact on job design, productivity, and worker satisfaction. Conduct analyses of how these technologies improve, or diminish, both productivity and employee engagement.
As cognitive technologies truly take hold in the next decade, it is important for business and HR leaders to be proactive and get ahead of this trend. Business and HR leaders should look beyond the alarmist hype of predictions that employees are doomed to be replaced by thinking machines and advanced robotics. HR’s role is to focus on the opportunities cognitive technologies offer through collaboration between people and machines to make companies more efficient, productive, and profitable, and jobs more meaningful and engaging. Both business leaders and HR professionals should seize this opportunity to think creatively in helping their organizations take full advantage of emerging cognitive technologies.