Author: John Sviokla, Head of Global Thought Leadership
In our latest CEO pulse, we asked CEOs about the adoption and impact of robotics in their businesses. They told us the role of robotics was set to grow and to infiltrate other functions aside from manufacturing.
Business leaders across the globe were also positive about the impact of robotics in terms of productivity and generating revenue per employee. And 64% foresee that robotics will drive innovations in their business models. Personally, I was excited to learn that this latest poll of CEOs confirmed my suppositions outlined in an article I wrote some time ago with Benn Konsynski: Cognitive Reapportionment: Rethinking the location of judgment in managerial decision making1, indicating that robots and artificial intelligence would be part of the world’s workforce. So, what does this mean for the way we work with machines?
The idea of having the computer as a colleague, and a colleague that could think for itself, goes back to the roots of the modern computing movement. Yet, even though machine thinking now plays an integral part in the function of nearly all modern companies, it’s fair to say that most people’s opinion of their computerised ‘colleagues’ isn’t always complimentary. All too often, machines are either depicted as just a more productive robotic replacement for manual labour – or, at the other end of the imaginative scale, as a future threat to the human race. But, as the CEO pulse findings demonstrate, the employment debate around robotics is less clear cut. We believe we’re going to see greater collaboration between man and machine as robotics paves the way for more sophisticated ‘augmented’ workforce models.
As robotics becomes more important to the success of companies, humans will need to need to learn how to work with machines. Organisations need the right mixture of human and machine-based intelligence to respond to an increasingly volatile global business world. Volume, volatility, velocity and veracity (the four Vs of information that’ll shape the future of business) demand new skills that have eluded organisations that, historically, depended on humans to perform all the key cognitive and decision making roles.
Managers will need a new way to understand these assets. Already, organisations are under pressure to monitor and distill external data, leverage internal expertise in decision-making, and modify and update current systems. In such a demanding information environment, managers are beginning to offload cognitive responsibilities onto systems. In the future, they’ll move to overseeing the work of both humans and machines.
So how will work and decision-making be apportioned in this new human-machine partnership? I believe that modern organisations need to be viewed in the framework of bundles of decisions. These bundles can be allocated across humans, systems or a combination of humans and systems. In the business environment of tomorrow, pressures will continue to grow for skills needed to capture, filter, use and convey useful information and knowledge more precisely and more quickly.
This ‘cognitive reapportionment’ is already happening in many industries. Take financial services, where credit requests are authorised by an algorithm in the credit authorisation software. Identifying potentially fraudulent account activity is now only managed by software programmed to spot and then flag-up anomalies in customer behaviour. In many countries, alerts are now delivered automatically by text message way before any human gets involved.
Cognitive reapportionment can also work in reverse. If we look at aviation, pilots are permitted to take over control and coordination responsibilities that permit them to perform special manoeuvres. Depending upon conditions, the pilot, or the supporting avionic systems, are both capable of performing critical decision tasks. Yet, there are situations where only one of the actors should be allowed to make the decisions. The design that provided the best set of decision outcomes wins out. In the avionics system, the trim controls are often left with the information system, but the ejection decisions with the pilot.
As human and machine co-working increases, there will clearly be a class of decision situations that are more suited to human cognitors (many involving intuition, aesthetics and leaps of belief) and those best suited to the high performance characteristics of the organisation (speed, total enumeration, and massive data consideration). Many of the more interesting allocations of cognitive responsibilities will involve dynamic allocation of responsibilities among human and system cognitors. But, unless companies are open to the possibilities of human and machines sharing thinking and decision-making, computers will continue to be treated as second-class citizens… and business will suffer as a result.
Dr. John J. Sviokla is the head of Global Thought Leadership at PwC, where he also works with clients on strategy and innovation. In addition, John leads the Exchange - a think-tank that provides executives an opportunity to discuss important issues in a collaborative atmosphere.
1 Konsynski, B.R. & Sviokla, J.J. (1994) Cognitive Reapportionment: Rethinking the location of judgment in managerial decision making. In C. Heckscher & A. Donnellon (Eds.), The post-bureaucratic organization: New perspectives on organizational change (pp. 91-107). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.