Giving Digital the Human Touch

During World War II, mathematician and pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing famously wondered if computers could pass as humans and developed a test to find out. Behind his so-called “imitation game” is an age-old question: Can machines effectively replace people?

Science-fiction plotlines are filled with such gloomy scenarios, where the rise of the machine spells the fall of mankind. But what if technology could make work better and more human?

In many ways, we know that it can — and already does. Using digital technology, companies can tailor work to individual strengths and make it more flexible, accessible and meaningful to employees throughout the organization.

Contrary to popular belief, digital need not be about cold efficiency and doing away with the human touch. Digital can dramatically extend the human touch by augmenting our brains and brawn, not replacing them.

Things like virtual sensors, analytics, advanced robotic devices, developments in artificial intelligence, automated virtual assistants, 3-D printers, wearable devices, collaboration software and gaming capabilities have the potential to reshape work practices like never before.

How much? According to “Power Generation: Meet the New Digital Field Worker,” a 2014 research report by management consulting firm Accenture, pilots show that plant workers can gain 1.5 hours per day in work time using mobility enabled, electronic work packages, boosting productivity by up to 25 percent (Editor’s note: The authors work at the firm).

Advances like these lead to greater experimentation within the company and empowerment for the people who use the technology. Technology allows for more strategic decisions at a local level and frees up workers’ time to focus on higher-level tasks. This approach also allows the workforce to collaborate better with both one another and with machines to boost productivity, which ultimately improves organizational performance.  

Digital technology makes it so that work can be done from a distance and creates a new level of flexibility on where and how it is done. One example: Mining company Rio Tinto Group’s skilled equipment operators sit in a remote command center and work side-by-side with data analysts and engineers to orchestrate the actions of huge drills, excavators and other machinery across multiple mining sites.

This approach, it can be argued, enables better collaboration among various employee groups and also allows the company to work from a central location, regardless of the actual project site.

There are countless other examples. High-tech exoskeletons help military personnel, surgeons and nurses boost their strength and endurance to perform better at work, helping them achieve physical feats impossible without robotics. Chicago firefighters have tested robots as their first line of defense, using machines to enter partially collapsed buildings and other perilous situations and assess the danger before risking human life.

NASA teams astronauts and robots to handle the difficult and dangerous task of cleaning derelict satellites. Outfitted with advanced analytics algorithms and stereoscopic cameras, robots analyze space junk to quickly map each piece’s spin, velocity, trajectory and center of mass, allowing astronauts to capture it safely out of harm’s way.

The benefits are notable: In an auto manufacturing trial profiled in 2014 Accenture research, a human-robot team assembled the frame of a car 10 times faster than a team of three humans. How? For simple welds, a robot with a video projector shows a human where to place a specific part; then the robot makes perfect welds in five seconds per weld. For more difficult welds, however, the robot defers to its human partner to perform better.

Ultimately, the accelerated assembly frees up time for workers to focus on trouble-shooting and more challenging work.

Reorganizing Work

As famous French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “Nothing tends to materialize man, and to deprive his work of the faintest trace of mind, more than extreme division of labor.”

What was true nearly 200 years ago is still true today: The very concept of “a job” — and the strict division of work — can effectively kill autonomy, inspiration, innovation and increase monotony, making tasks seem less significant and meaningful. Yet whole human resources departments organize nearly every talent practice around the concept of roles and jobs, with managers using the notion of the job to hire, manage and organize teams.

Now, digital is tearing down the hierarchy, bureaucracy and functional silos that have been the pillars of organizations since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Functional roles and rigid job descriptions are giving way to people coalescing around joint goals and forming collaborative teams.

In fact, 2014 Accenture research shows that 44 percent of high growth companies now use temporary teams, and 86 percent leverage the power of collaboration across employees to achieve high performance. These new ways of working open the organization for feedback, ideas and innovation at all levels.

Redefining the Role of Leadership

Water is an apt analogy for the effect of digital on an organization. Like a liquid, digital technology flows throughout every nook and cranny of an organization. And like drops of water that over time turn stones into pebbles, digital wears down the siloes and hierarchies — only a lot faster.

Digital also hastens the evolution of organizations into more flexible and networked forms. Like a river, it connects people across geographies and functions. It makes work processes more transparent and encourages the intersection of people and ideas that can lead to innovation. It helps grow diverse ecosystems of vendors and alliance partners by dramatically reducing the cost of collaboration.

Reshaping HR With Digital Tech

Advances in digital technology empower workers make work more engaging and less focused on rote activity. And it’s changing human resources. Digital translates into an opportunity for human resources professionals to use social media to make key processes more accessible to people throughout the organization. The net result is a much more democratized workforce where employees can:

  • Use talent exchanges to map their skills and interests to opportunities, and define their own compensation in reverse talent auctions.
  • Negotiate scheduling changes with one another on shift-swapping sites.
  • Choose benefits determined by consensus through analysis of corporate social media sites that reveal what benefits are important to which employee populations.
  • Analyze big data from sources like blogs, social networking sites and other online forums to determine what employees need and want as well as to find new employees.
  • Help select new leaders or successors through opinion polling by those most affected by the decision.

—Colin Sloman and Robert J. Thomas

Because of its fluid nature, digital encourages and even requires a much more “horizontal” form of leadership — the ability to exercise influence without formal authority. Also, horizontal leadership encourages collaboration and decentralized decision-making, vital elements of the digital enterprise. Indeed, skill in horizontal leadership is what enables executives to “let go” and trust that effective work can be conducted by teams and that effective decision-making can be carried out at the edges of the organization.

The shift to horizontal leadership is found in Accenture’s 2014 research: 58 percent of executives felt technology improved communications by allowing them to connect with a team, or a broader organization, more easily and quickly. What’s more, companies that have invested in collaborative tools like interactive portals, social networking and wikis have found them to be 80 percent effective at improving productivity, according to 2014 Accenture research, “High Performers in IT: Defined by Digital.”

Changes Afoot

So how can business leaders adapt to these changes, with a focus on both employees and the technologies that help them? To become more agile, accommodate changing worker demands and harness the new open talent economy, organizations will increasingly change in three fundamental ways.

Flatten hierarchies. Advances don’t just come in the form of technological advances. It’s also time to shake up organizational structure and exercise influence without formal authority. This transition encourages collaboration and decentralized decision-making. Across the enterprise, including third-party suppliers and independent agents, this breaking down of silos eventually allows workers to hold specialized skills and define their own jobs.

Embrace digital tools and technologies. Robotics, automation, technological augmentation, artificial intelligence and collaboration tools are here to stay. Embrace them proactively instead of playing catch up to competitors that have already improved the work experience through digital and gained the advantages.

Encourage talent to regularly refresh their skills. As the workplace changes, so do the profile of workers and the skills they need to succeed. Coach and enable employees to constantly develop new skills needed by the organization and seek out new opportunities to create value. And have them focus on human skills that will reign in the age of the machine, developing capabilities machines won’t likely take over like idea creation, communication, empathy, analysis, experimentation and the ability to make sense of data.

Keeping the ‘Human’ in Human Capital

Organizations are shifting to a world where the innately human characteristics of collaboration, coaching, entrepreneurialism and fluid temporary teams are fast replacing hierarchy, bureaucracy, functional siloes and traditional notions of the job.

New digital technologies are driving that change. Through more tailored roles and rewards and a more democratized workplace, some might even say digital is putting the “human” back in “human capital.”

Through digital, people can cocreate highly personalized work experiences, and lead and manage in ways that free employees to exercise judgment and unleash creativity at all levels of the organization. Leaders will need to loosen the old school “command and control” grip on hierarchies, and instead manage networks of employees and external talent pools, often at the far ends or outside the organization.

To be sure, digital isn’t a cure-all. Just having the technology won’t magically transform an organization into one with a greater sense of human touch. Humanizing the workforce through digital takes a conscious effort.

 Organizations that embrace these changes from leaders down to front-line workers will be able to enjoy more engaged, satisfied employees, improve workforce productivity and effectiveness, and achieve new levels of meaning, innovation, agility and operational excellence.