Prepare Your Workforce for the Automation Age



by Christoph Knoess, Ron Harbour, Steve Scemama


The internet has dramatically changed the way companies operate. Massive data storage capacity, super-fast data transmission and mobility devices—along with slick application program interfaces—have left companies scrambling to adapt.

As workforces hollow out, the remaining employees will be highly specialized and experienced business/technology hybrids—a new breed of professional who can work in highly distributed environments and shift from managing people to managing experiences and technology. In the back-office, the lights will dim, as work is shifted to the customer or other parts of the value chain. In the middle office, risk and compliance management will largely watch bots that are not prone to human error or fraud, supported by sophisticated models to predict quality and compliance issues. In the front office, automation based on predictive analytics will leave only managers who can control sophisticated robo-advisors trusted by customers. Salespeople will be disrupted as customers link with algorithmic bots to obtain products contextually presented at the (digital) point of need—often dominated by the global platforms that link retail, financial services, entertainment and communications in sticky ways.

Parallel work streams

The lessons to date on driving digitization and robotics suggest operating on a dual track. Strike the right balance between implementing short-term automation fixes and opportunities, while seeking solutions to problems that will determine success in the long run. It takes time for clients and employees to adapt to monumental change. Thus, it is as important to get long-term organizational change underway as it is to rapidly exploit near-term efficiency.

To that end, managers should develop a list of 10 to 15 processes that bots can quickly improve. Test and learn, both in the application of the right bots to the right problem, and how to redesign processes end-to-end to maximize results. Simultaneously test and learn on the soft side of automation. Blueprint the broader impact on roles, skills, controls, leadership, workforce and talent management, and social contracts.

By doing so, managers can move critical employees and clients closer to their longer term automation ambitions—which can be funded at least in part with returns from the earlier automation of simpler tasks.

Mold the organization

As more processes are digitized in every part of an organization, executives must think at a macro level about the entire enterprise, even as the organization is changing. How do you hire today for a diminished workforce 10 years out? When more and more of your people are replaced by bots, how do you lead, enforce quality control, and audit? The key to navigating through the coming automation age will be identifying and retaining (retraining) the employees who can make one transition after another.

Companies will experience huge changes as physical infrastructure disappears, offshore capabilities are repatriated, more services become self-service and virtual, and customers begin to interact more with robots. Automation will transform not just production, but operating models. Start early to shift the leadership mindset. Actively drive customer adoption by adjusting your pricing and loyalty incentives to encourage early adopters, while simultaneously having your own employees co-service them with the same tools. Initially, customers should be allowed easy and seamless access to people as a fallback to self-service and other digital offerings. Assess the impact on your social contracts to both your employees and the communities you serve. Engage local stakeholders and unions early in discussions of how you can continue to give back to the community with a smaller workforce. Build a picture of the future state and work backwards.

There is time before the inflection point—time to prepare with purpose and pilots. Focus not just on the technology and analytics, the shiny object, but on people and a new form of leadership.


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