How AI and automation will power your new ‘no-collar’ workforce

Published on the 16/01/2018 | Written by Jonathan Cotton

Automation power no-collar workforce

With hybrid human/machine roles becoming a reality, one thing’s for sure: HR and IT departments - not to mention low-skilled workers - are in for some big changes...

It bears all the marks of the peak of inflated expectations at its peakiest: An ultra-efficient, man/machine hybrid talent base, ushering in a new golden age of efficiency and blasting ROIs through the roof.

It’s being dubbed the ‘no-collar workforce’, as companies take a fresh look at worker roles, assigning some tasks to real McCoy humans, some to machines, and others to new hybrid models that marry the two for machine-augmented human employees.

Whether that’s a brave new world or a dystopian nightmare depends on who you ask, but ignore the alarmist headlines, advises Deloitte, the future is shiny and automated.

“These dire headlines may deliver impressive click stats, but they don’t consider a much more hopeful – and likely – scenario: In the near future, human workers and machines will work together seamlessly, each complementing the other’s efforts in a single loop of productivity,” reads the Deloitte’s Tech Trends 2018.

After all, ‘only’ around 20 percent of business leaders intend to reduce the number of jobs at their companies as automation goes mainstream, according to Deloitte’s research.

“Most respondents (77 percent) said they will either retrain people to use new technology or will redesign jobs to better take advantage of human skills. Indeed, recent Deloitte UK research suggests that in the future, 30 percent of high-paying new jobs will be social and ‘essentially human’ in nature.”

It’s exciting stuff, but it might not be quite the sea change Deloitte suggests. There’s often a vast gap between new tech being a good idea in theory, and business actually putting their money where their mouths are.

According to a report from MIT, Reshaping business with Artificial Intelligence, while most executives are enthusiastic about AI-powered competitive advantage in principle, only a small proportion have actually done anything with it beyond pilot programs.

“The gap between ambition and execution is large at most companies,” the report says. “Three-quarters of executives believe AI will enable their companies to move into new businesses. Almost 85 percent believe AI will allow their companies to obtain or sustain a competitive advantage. But only about one in five companies has incorporated AI in some offerings or processes. Only one in 20 companies has extensively incorporated AI in offerings or processes. Less than 39 percent of all companies have an AI strategy in place. The largest companies — those with at least 100,000 employees — are the most likely to have an AI strategy, but only half have one.”

So maybe the tech that will power the no-collar revolution isn’t exactly imminent, but one way or another, it’s in the mail and steadily inching its way towards real-world adoption.

But just what does Deloitte’s theoretical man/machine symbiote look like?

Simply put, ‘no-collar’ thinking aims to take the best of what humans can do and marry it to the strengths of machines. Humans for example, are creative, ethical (generally speaking), can use abstract reasoning and empathise. Machines on the other hand offer harder skills – scalable processing capabilities, computation and impartiality. Bring these two things together (goes the logic, and abracadabra, you’ve got yourself one hell of a workforce.

Take a simple example – a phone-based customer service role. If machine automation allows that worker to shift the more menial and time-consuming rote elements of the work – data entry for example – to an automaton, they can then spend more time personally engaging with, and, presumably upselling, the customer.

And some companies are, in fact, moving beyond hypotheticals. NASA is currently occupying the bleeding edge of man/bot workforces. The aeronautics agency currently has actual bots deployed – albeit in a testing phase – throughout the agency. Those bots receive performance reviews like regular employees, has an email account and handle a variety of duties such as repetitive bookkeeping and organizational tasks.

“Rather than viewing bots as a replacement for people, I see them as a way to simplify work,” says Mark Glorioso, executive director of NASA Shared Services Center (NSSC). “We are building bots that will make our people more effective, so as we grow, we are able to do more without adding staff.”

There’s big potential there, but the challenge for companies – managers, HR, IT and workers on the shop floor – is also huge. Expect a flurry of retraining, reevaluating and new management philosophies as companies attempt to reconcile emerging AI and automation capabilities with their legacy systems.

“By redesigning legacy practices, systems, and talent models around the tenets of autonomics, HR groups can begin transforming themselves into nimble, fast-moving, dynamic organizations well positioned to support the talent – both mechanized and human – of tomorrow,” says Deloitte.

Reports like Deloitte’s accentuate the positive of course and underplay the perhaps deleterious effects that the coming automation age will have on lower-skilled and less agile elements of the workforce. History doesn’t exactly support that optimistic outlook of course, but neither does that mean we should despair.

Rather, the immediate future is an uncertain one, and longer term, one of profound change.

Read Deloitte’s Tech Trends 2018 here.

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