The rise of robots in organizations has resulted in two schools of thought—those who believe robots will replace humans and those who believe robots will help humans perform better. Our view is that the world has reached a tipping point where robots and humans are set to thrive in a symbiotic partnership. It’s time to start thinking, “Can a bot do this task for me?”
To understand how we got here, we must look back at how humans have responded to approaching our productivity limit. When faced with diminishing returns to human productivity, we have resorted to creating tools and technologies that replace physical labor and increase work efficiency to overcome the limitations. The invention of the steam engine that led to the industrial revolution massively increased human productivity in the 20th century. Productivity began stagnating at the end of the millennium, but already over the last two decades, the digital revolution and robots have had a more significant impact on human productivity than the steam engine ever did.
In the digital revolution, we have embraced advanced technologies and established a symbiotic relationship with machines in our everyday lives. We readily share data and bypass human interactions to allow the machines we created to deliver cheaper, better, and faster results. We interact with software-driven cashier robots in supermarkets and share our shopping history and preferences with machines, just to avoid a long queue. We store credit card details on our phones for convenience and comfortably reveal our pinpoint geographical location for a quick ride home from a stranger. It’s no longer about just consuming information from software bots to get the best insurance quote or the cheapest hotel rate; we have now learned to actively collaborate and feed the machine intelligence. Navigation apps rely on data provided by us humans to enhance their traffic pattern predictions for a faster path to our destination.
While individuals are increasingly trusting machines through their daily interactions, organizations are increasingly relying on robotic process automation, software bots, virtual assistants, and artificial intelligence tools to mimic human action, replicate human judgement, and augment human intelligence. For example, Rethink Robots pitches its bots as “workforce multipliers”: robots with a digital face that can be taught new tasks by demonstration rather than reprogramming because their sensors learn to mimic the human behavior.
In another example, Poppy® is a robot used to automate detailed steps in creating and submitting London Premium Advice Notes (LPANs) to a central insurance market repository. Prior to the introduction of Poppy, processing a batch of 500 LPANs took several days. After Poppy was trained to automate part of the process, the processing time was reduced to around 30 minutes, with a negligible error rate. Poppy was welcomed rather than feared by the operations staff, who requested that Poppy be trained to take on further processes. Similarly, IPsoft’s Amelia is a virtual agent intended to converse with customers to gather information and resolve their queries faster and more consistently than a person could.
Thanks to this new human-machine dynamic, it has become much easier to introduce new technology for people to adopt. Intelligent machines and fearless humans are taking this symbiotic relationship to a level that has unimaginable potential for productivity growth.
Redefining the human and robot relationship
While robots may replace some of the functions humans can perform, there are two areas in which we humans are unparalleled and irreplaceable—being creative and making meaning. Employees may be consumed with performing rote tasks rather than operating at their highest potential. In a sense, they are mimicking robots. The advent of software-driven robots creates an opportunity to allow humans to do work that is uniquely human and increase overall productivity in unprecedented ways through the efficient execution of tasks. Robots can manage rote work, freeing up human teammates to become more engaged by the meaning of their work. This can lead to less oversight of work with more informed real-time analytic insights to find creative ways to increase production. These symbiotic working partnerships with software-driven robotics create a unique opportunity for human development.
We have reached an inflection point in the evolution of technology where organizations can no longer afford to delay investment in retooling their organizations to maximize the returns from these symbiotic relationships. Companies will only be able to realize productivity gains from these new symbiotic partnerships and operating models if they skillfully manage the people side of automation, in what will be a vastly different organization. As companies introduce software robotics-driven automation, they must mobilize their key employees, leaders, and customers to redefine jobs, career paths, workforce management, and social contracts. Executives should think carefully about how to match people and machines, bearing in mind that many of the decisions they make today will have an effect on workforce composition, productivity, and profits for years to come.
Organizations purposefully designed to enable humans and software-driven robotics to partner to deliver a shared workload efficiently and effectively are what we term humboticTMorganizations. Now is the time for organizations to invest in maximizing productivity derived from this new symbiotic relationship between humans and robots—by building a humbotic organization.
Building an effective humbotic organization
Humans are already operating in a symbiotic relationship with machines outside of the workplace. For organizations to extend this relationship into the workplace, they need to look beyond rolling out the latest digital technology or providing the best technical training for their workforce. They should shift their focus to creating the preconditions required for human-robot partnership through the right organizational structure, job designs, and talent. By leveraging the familiarity and comfort people already have with robots outside of work, companies can create similar relationships at work to meet the strategic and productivity goals of the organization. These organizations should consider hiring, promoting, and rewarding people who are already operating in a symbiotic relationship with robots, as evidenced by trusting, engaging, and collaborating with them at work.
Courage against the machine
Outside the workplace, people have built a strong bond with robots—learning from each other and collaborating innately with robots. It is time for organizations to demonstrate courage by allowing employees to build on this human-machine relationship and assess where they stand on humbotic maturity. Their focus should shift to exploring how they can drive exponential growth and productivity as a truly humbotic organization. It is only a matter of time before humbotic organizations are the norm and bots are the new talent pool.
This blog was first published in The HR Times blog