AI and automation are vital for businesses to adapt and flourish, but people are the ones who make it all happen.
By Johan Steyn, 4 October 2022
Most of my consulting work has to do with a business’s artificial intelligence (AI) and smart automation strategy. My clients call on me to help them “get it right”. We are dealing with the most powerful technology ever — even though it’s not yet as powerful as most people think — and its impact on an entire organisation should never be underestimated.
Still, it’s sadly underestimated by many of the business leaders with whom I work. It is also greatly misunderstood. Some fear this technology greatly; their views influenced by media reports and by Hollywood movies. They identify AI with the Terminator.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those leaders who harbour an overly enthusiastic view. They think AI is a “silver bullet” that will fix all their problems and want to “AI everything” in their organisations. These people are often influenced by smooth-talking management consultants, selling a promised outcome that none can keep.
Thankfully, many executives have a more balanced view. AI, like anything created by humans, is essentially a neutral force. Humans create it and humans can use it for good or evil. We can use this technology to benefit employees, customers and society as a whole, or we can cause great harm.
AI and automation should ideally be used to free people from repetitive, low-value work. People in these roles are already like robots. We need to “take the robot out of the human”. Leaders should free people from work that the robots do best, so they can perform high-value tasks that only humans can. People have value, they have experience, intuition and the ability to solve complex problems.
Rule-based work is better suited for digital virtual agents, chatbots and automated decision-making systems. They are accurate, they work all hours and they do not join unions or get sick. Let them do the bulk of the administrative back-office tasks.
I am not advocating that every employee will be completely freed from low-value tasks as digital technology is introduced into a business. The conundrum facing business leaders is what to do with the people whose functions are highly “automatable”.
I explain this to my clients by drawing a circle inside another circle. The inner circle is what I call the “smart technology ecosystem”. There we find a cocktail of the technologies we hear so much about. AI, machine learning, edge computing, the cloud, cognitive automation, digital assistants and chatbots. In most cases, business executives focus solely on this inner circle, and that is the main reason so many of their technology initiatives seem to fail.
In my picture, the outer circle contains the very important “softer” issues: organisational design, change management, upskilling, attracting talent and the business case. I ask my clients whether they have given any thought how AI and automation would affect their people and their clients. What would their organisations look like in five years?
Sadly, few have considered the impact, focusing only on the technology. I challenge them to change their focus. I urge them to build businesses that are both highly profitable and also people-centred and ethical.
• Steyn is on the faculty at Woxsen University, a research fellow with Stellenbosch University and the founder of AIforBusiness.net