Reimagine a workforce where humans and machines combine their skills to increase productivity.
The notion of a blended workforce where humans and intelligent machines collaborate to deliver vastly more productivity and efficiency than either could do on their own is a key trend for 2015. This blended workforce has been made possible by advances in robotic and wearable technologies as well as human-machine interfaces. And it couldn’t be at a more opportunistic time.
Why? In companies’ race to become digital, they’re encountering global talent shortages – in critical skill areas such as IT, cybersecurity and analysis of huge datasets. The result is a digital talent war that’s hot now – and it will get only hotter. Forward-looking organisations are building blended workforces to fill those skill gaps. And so we find ourselves entering an era of humans and machines.
As more and more smart machines are working interactively with people, companies can divide and distribute the tasks that play to each side’s strengths. People are better suited for creativity, contextual understanding and complex communications; even as machines provide precision, scale and consistency. As a team, they accomplish more than either human or machine could on their own, providing enterprises with increased intelligence, performance and productivity.
Experiments at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) show how, in this blended workforce, robots can make workers more efficient. Researchers there have shown that an industrial robot can be trained by essentially observing and adapting to the habits of an individual worker. In one manufacturing experiment, humans inserted objects into prepared drill holes in whatever sequence they preferred. Robots were then able to predict their human teammate’s preferred sequence of object placement to then fill holes with glue just before the workers came along to insert objects into the holes. The workers didn’t have to change or adapt their human styles and the overall outcome proved beneficial. The possibilities really appear limitless.
Here’s another instance: in an auto-manufacturing trial, a human-robot team assembled a car frame. The robot had a video projector that showed the person exactly where to put different parts – and then made perfect welds in just five seconds per weld. For more difficult welds, the robot deferred to its partner. Together, they completed the project 10 times faster than a team of three human professionals could.
While the blended workforce promises significant advantages, capturing these advantages will require fundamental change in organisations.
For one thing, they’ll need to “democratise” technology – categorising and shifting skill sets so tasks previously reserved for specialists are approachable for less skilled employees. By doing so, they’ll expand their available talent pool.
Companies will also have to answer to new kinds of questions like:
– Which jobs will we assign to machines and which to humans?
– How can we decentralise decision-making so machines can carry on more of the workload?
– How can we train our employees to teach their non-human colleagues? And
– What conversations should our IT and HR leaders be having right now?
In addition, companies will need to prioritise training of their blended workforce – paying the closest attention to what’s needed to upgrade skills for the tasks that people do well, and identifying the skills that will be required to complement what machines do well.
Human and machine – each on their own – won’t be enough to drive businesses in the coming decades. Tomorrow’s leading enterprises will be those that know how to meld the two effectively. How will your company start fostering game-changing collaboration between the human and non-human parts of your workforce?
Lee Naik is Managing Director of Accenture Digital in South Africa. This article was compiled from excerpts of his keynote address at Unisa’s Talent Management Conference on 7 – 8 September 2015.
This article appeared in the November 2015 issue of HR Future magazine.