What “Helping People Work Better” Means in the Artificial Intelligence and Robots Era

With the planning for the start of the year comes the requisite reflection for all private companies and other type of organizations, including government agencies: It is an …

With the planning for the start of the year comes the requisite reflection for all private companies and other type of organizations, including government agencies: It is an undeniable reality that the advent of robotics and artificial intelligence have become of great importance in the discussions on how to improve work processes. Every newspaper, magazine or blog is writing about RPA (Robotic Process Automation) and AI (Artificial Intelligence), and the impact that these technologies will have in the world of work and jobs, including the obsolescence of occupations based on rules as a result of automation.

Nowadays the term “digital transformation” has become a cliché that we hear so much that it has started to lose its impact and meaning, because it is associated with everything and everyone, often without clear and practical guidance about what to do with this concept.

Digital transformation does not mean sitting down and waiting for the robots and artificial intelligence to take over – not that they could, unless the work is based on very clear rules and on processes that are more or less stable, that do not have too much uncertainty, unforeseen events or situations where one has to interpret the next course of action.

Humans are still needed

Yes, it is true that there is a lot of work that involves repetitive tasks that can be based on parameters and where performance could be based on rules, however elaborate they might be. This work could be performed by a physical robot, a “bot” or software robot, or an AI system, the latter being upgraded with more capabilities every day.

Despite that, it is my opinion that there are many tasks and processes that still require interpretation, creativity, emphatic problem-solving and taking decisions “on the fly”, that are not subject to being transferred to robots or AI in the near future. Furthermore, as we work in Latin America and in the Spanish language, an important number of these new technologies and capabilities are developed initially for the English-speaking world and then are replicated for other language markets, with Spanish usually being fourth or fifth in the list of priorities (not because of the number of speakers there are in the world, but because of buying power – usually some other European and Asian languages come first, as their regions have more buying capacity for these technologies).

Lost in translation

This means for us that capabilities in Spanish (specially in AI) will come with a delay of between 6 and 18 months or maybe more. AI’s capabilities rely on its capacity to “read, understand, interpret, decide and communicate back”, and the different structure of languages. Its own complexities and peculiarities make AI complex to port from one language to another. So expect some time before the latest AI technologies are stabilized and propagated to the Spanish language.

My argument, then, is that, beyond the “bots” and the AI entities there is a great load of work waiting to be done in the purely human context – tied to the optimization of human work assisted by technology. Around the world there are many processes related to procurement, finance, accounting, human resources, treasury, client support or sales administration that are handled completely in paper or with Excel forms and email, that cost companies and other organizations a lot of money and that are great candidates for quick optimizations with high value added based on readily available platforms at low cost.

The reflection that directors and managers must have, now that we are at the beginning of the year and in “budget time”, is: how are we going to work better through digital transformation applied to the “human” work people do? We would be deceiving ourselves and our organization if we rely on transformation only through robots and AI.  Orderliness, transparency, control, cost, visibility, metrics/ KPIs, accountability: all these attributes can be improved in many processes without having to involve a “bot” or an AI entity.

Transformation through digital

Therefore, as you define your 2019 objectives, ask yourself: In what aspects can I work to transform digitally the human work of my colleagues at my company or organization?

Let me provide you with some ideas:

  • Get rid of paper-based processes or the ones being handled in Excel or Word that are transferred from one side to the other physically or by email. Ask around. I am sure you will find some interesting candidates for this. There are many options for electronic forms that also handle your workflow (the route by which the approvals are handled, as well as all possible alternative routings if the approver has queries or denies the approval) in a very practical manner, digitally. These platforms can be reached from the laptop, the smartphone or a tablet at any time and from everywhere. Some even allow you to scribble your signature in the form.
  • Improve the way in which your employees communicate and interact with each other and with external parties: there are many very interesting cloud tools for working, coordinating, planning, collaborating and controlling the tasks and projects of your organization. Some are very interesting because they integrate several features under only one application. Even if you collaborate with external third parties such as providers, business partners or clients, these tools enable you to interact closely with them in a controlled secured manner (to avoid managing company issues in a social media platform, as some are doing).
  • Improve the way in which you manage your commercial processes: Social media, email and some more traditional channels such as phone calls are all very useful to communicate with your client by multiple channels, but your commercial personnel will tell you that is a challenge to follow up on 5, 10 or 15 different tools and platforms. That is without also counting the need to report on the activity of all those channels to management and responding to ad-hoc queries on those channels. Providing visibility of those channels to management can become a full time job. Integrate so that everything is in one place. This will not change what your commercial personnel does through these channels, but simplifies and optimizes their job so that they are more effective and provide a better experience to their clients. Also, a platform such as these usually generates reports and KPIs in a transparent manner, relieving your personnel of doing reports and providing managers with the real-time monitoring they want, without the workload.
  • Improve the information you have at hand and use it to take decisions: whoever handles more and better information will be more agile in the market and thus, more competitive. Do you take your key decisions with clear data, analyzed and on time? Or do you usually cross your fingers and try to “query your gut” due to lack of on-time information? There are multiple options to improve your capacity to take decisions. Choose one and focus on attaining it.

Don’t get me wrong, bots and AI are here to stay and will be every year more blended into our workforce, which will become “hybrid” (bots, AI and humans). But the purpose of my comment today is to point out that all these technologies must not blind us, or bias us, to the point of our inactivity while we wait for the bots.

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There is much work to do extending the capacities of your employees through technological tools. In EXYGE.COM we specialized in helping people work in a better way and we believe that this time of the year is ideal to choose one or two objectives from the suggestions stated above and put ‘hands to work’ with your plan to attain these capacities. In this way, you are actively work in transforming your organization today and with the resources you currently have at hand. Don’t just wait for the bots to arrive.