We are on the brink of a politically, economically and socially fractured world. That’s why the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2018 theme, 'Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World’, aimed at developing a shared narrative to improve the state of the world. Being a WEF Strategic Partner for 19 years, Accenture brings leadership for digital transformation at the intersection of AI and Future Workforce, redefining strategy, sustainability, and technology.
The future workforce will combine artificial intelligence with human ingenuity, leveraging the one to enhance the other. The question is not whether we will be replaced by the machines that surround us. Instead, we should ask ourselves what miracles we might achieve together.
History has taught us to think of automation in terms of efficiency. There’s this old image that has worked itself into our collective consciousness, of massive machines standing watch in automated factories, milling and welding and finishing and packaging the products that human workers once made, back in the days before they became obsolete.
Over time, of course, that picture has evolved to accommodate new perspectives and capabilities. In the financial services industry, automation now handles the most tedious tasks for us, reducing the time spent on repetitive administrative processes and thereby reducing the need for administrators. Similarly, Amazon’s warehouses are buzzing with intrepid little robot helpers, picking orders and sorting inventory with minimal human involvement.
Perhaps because of past experience, we still tend to view automation as an agent of efficiency first and foremost. But as we find ourselves on the brink of a new industrial revolution, driven by artificial intelligence and machine learning, that outlook has officially outlived its usefulness.
Not since the rise of the internet has the future of work and business looked this promising, this tantalizing and so full of potential. Artificial intelligence isn’t going to put the world out of work. On the contrary: it will allow us to develop entirely new ways of working. Instead of merely helping businesses operate faster and more efficiently, these new technologies will help us discover radically different approaches to adding value that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
By augmenting the uniquely human insights and qualities of the global workforce with the power of next-gen automation, we will be able to achieve results the likes of which the world has never seen – and transform it for the better in the process.
Greater opportunities through technology
Humanity is a tribe of exceptionally accomplished generalists, well-equipped to handle a wide range of challenges and thrive in many different environments. That said, it’s no big secret that we’re not perfectly suited to every task. That’s why our ability to create tools has been such an important asset over the ages – and machine learning might just prove to be our greatest tool of all.
Machine learning might just prove to be our greatest tool of all
Look at it this way: even if we wanted to, most of us would have a hard time memorizing just one section of an average phonebook. Internalizing and processing the terabytes of raw data that the oil and gas industry uses to pinpoint new drilling operations? Completely out of the question. As it stands, even with computer systems to back us up, drilling is both a science and an art. Interpreting maps, geological strata and local conditions to successfully target new oil reserves relies as much on experience and professional instinct as it does on hard data.
Bringing machine learning into the mix will not remove the need for the insight, creativity and higher-level thinking that experienced drillers bring to the table, but it will help them spend less time on data analysis. With the assistance of artificial intelligences that can handle massive data sets and learn from prior outcomes, drillers will be able to focus on what they do best, becoming ever more precise and effective over time.
The same logic applies to all other industries. In the medical field, AI has enormous potential to accelerate diagnoses, reduce false positives and drive better outcomes for patients. Not by replacing doctors, mind you, but by augmenting their abilities and putting new tools at their disposal. We already know two minds are better than one. But what if one of those minds remembered everything it ever learned about every patient and procedure? What if it could integrate real-world experience from a wide range of fields into a single, coherent picture and share that information instantly, anywhere in the world? The potential to save lives and improve quality of life would be staggering.
Buy, build, borrow, 'bot'
The AI revolution will fundamentally transform every industry it touches. In the pharmaceutical industry, it will accelerate the development of new drugs, selecting candidates far faster and with greater accuracy than human researchers could achieve alone. In the hospitality industry, it will allow hotels to amaze their guests with hyper-personalized experiences, specifically tailored to their individual desires and preferences.
Your workforce will need to develop new skills in order to wield these new tools effectively
But to get there, companies need to ask themselves how they will utilize artificial intelligence and what that will mean for their workforce. Various aspects of various jobs can and will be automated, but at the end of the day, there is only so much an AI can do. Uniquely human qualities and characteristics like empathy, creativity and the ability to provide context for decision-making processes cannot be replaced by machines, no matter how smart and versatile they might be. At the same time, your workforce will need to develop new skills in order to wield these new tools effectively.
So, which capabilities will you need to build inside your company to prepare for your journey into the future? What types of talent will you need to procure elsewhere, whether by hiring them outright or sourcing them through partners in your ecosystem? And which tasks will you hand over to the intelligent machines of tomorrow?
These are questions that reach beyond the challenges Human Resources departments have traditionally faced. In fact, we may soon find ourselves in need of a new name for HR altogether. The workforce of the future is not limited to human capabilities, after all. More and more, getting the job done will require a holistic approach to automation, one that balances and combines the innate strengths of the human element with the fundamental advantages of the machine.
Embrace the new mindset
It’s abundantly clear that advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning will keep coming. We’re still only at the beginning of the revolution. Many things we believed to be impossible just a few years ago are now not only possible, but self-evident. It’s safe to say, then, that the next decade will see unbelievable advances in technology that could very well give your company a lasting competitive advantage. But seizing those opportunities is a matter of cultivating the right mindset, and that will prove to be your greatest responsibility as a leader.
The old days of reactive strategy are over. In this new era of business, there simply isn’t enough time to wait until you have a clear projection of the future to work with. Things are changing too quickly for that, and the pace of change will only continue to accelerate. Leadership will increasingly become a matter of choosing the right direction for the company, as opposed to selecting for perfect outcomes.
Doing so will require an intimate understanding of both the potential of artificial intelligence and the role your company wants to play in the future. As a leader, you need to be a role model and an inspiration for the change you want to see in your workforce. If you want to remain relevant as a company, you must understand these new technologies and what they can do.
Learn at the pace of progress
Building the right mindset will illuminate the path into the future, but you will only gain the tools you need to get there by cultivating the right skills. If you thought the last ten years were dynamic, brace yourself: we are entering an era of continuous transformation, where the only fixed value is your company’s desire to adapt and improve. Artificial intelligence will help you do so, but only if you make a clear commitment to learning and education.
Machine learning, robotic process automation, blockchain, next-gen analytics, big data visualization, DevOps, Agile – these are all much more than just trendy buzzwords. They’re the threads that will weave the very fabric of tomorrow, along with countless others that haven’t even been invented yet. If you want to avoid playing catch-up, you’ll need to start learning and training at the pace of progress. And that means you’ll have to start doing things differently.
Stimulate your workforce with modern, more fluid approaches to learning. Open a dialogue with them and keep it going indefinitely. Collaborate with HR to determine what work will look like tomorrow and start experimenting with new technologies and capabilities today. If you want your talent to acquire the skills they’ll need in the years to come, you’ll need to encourage them and provide them with the resources they need to learn. Dare to experiment and embrace novel forms of content. Attract experts and master, both from within and from outside your organization, and use online education techniques to accelerate the natural learning abilities of your workforce.
Nobody can know exactly what tomorrow will bring. But if you know where you’re headed and you have the skills to get there, the opportunities are unlimited. Take the plunge. Start learning. After all, there’s no time like the present – especially when you’re preparing for the future.