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Optimising The Future of Work: The Human-Automation Collaboration

Posted by Mathew French

10 September 2019

Apparently you can’t solve the ‘how to automate work’ problem by thinking solely about automation replacing jobs. This is the premise behind Reinventing Jobs: A 4-Step Approach for Applying Automation to Work by Ravin Jesuthasan, Managing Director at Willis Towers Watson, and John Boudreau, professor and Research Director at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organisations. Based on their decades of experience helping companies transform approaches to work and leadership, Reinventing Jobs offers a new set of tools for applying automation and artificial intelligence in today’s organisations. In this Blog we will examine the 4-Step framework for applying automation to work outlined by Jesuthasan and Boudreau, who believe that 'simply asking which humans will be replaced by automation fails to take into account how work and automation will evolve.' Now let's continue our exploration of this series on whether to automate or not to automate tasks and processes across the employee lifecycle.

Reinventing Jobs gives leaders and HR Professionals a more precise, planned and actionable way to decide how, when, and where to apply and optimise work automation. Jesuthasan and Boudreau assert that the very nature of an organisation will require rethinking, which means fundamental changes in the definition and execution of leadership. They also advise that everyone should approach their own careers as a constant process of deconstruction and reinvention as advances in automation continue to challenge the very essence of 'human work.'

The four-step framework the authors propose; deconstruct, optimise, automate, and reconfigure, illustrates how organisations can reinvent the manner in which work gets bundled into jobs and through which they can create optimal human-machine combinations. The book provides a roadmap by which leaders can (and need to) continuously re-examine what a job really is. It also provides the tools for identifying the pivotal performance value of individual tasks within jobs and how these tasks should be reconstructed and redesigned into new more optimal combinations.

Answering The Difficult Questions About Automation

According to Willis Towers Watson's research, once the decision has been made to adopt automation and artificial intelligence technologies, leaders face difficult questions about how to implement that decision:

  • How, when, and where should we apply automation in our organisations? Is it a stark choice between humans versus machines?

  • How do we stay on top of these technological trends as work and automation continue to evolve?

In 'Reinventing Jobs,' the authors suggest that leaders need a new set of tools to answer these daunting questions. Going beyond traditional concepts like a 'job,' readers discover that automation calls for a re-examination of what a job actually is, what 'work' will entail going forward, and they then learn how to determine variations of tasks within jobs so as to reconstruct those elements into new and different combinations. In addition, transcending the ongoing debate about humans being replaced by machines, the authors show how smart leaders are optimising human-automation combinations that are not only more efficient but generate higher returns on improved performance. And they do so without forgetting the human factor and ensuring that they take care of their people along the way.

Want to ensure that you take care of your people as you embark on the HR automation journey? Your HR toolkit needs a solution that enables you to manage the reinvention of jobs at every stage of the employee lifecycle. Take a look at our Performance Management software solution.

A Practical Four-Step Framework

Based on groundbreaking primary research, Reinventing Jobs provides an original, structured approach and a new set of tools for applying automation and artificial intelligence in your organisation. Jesuthasan and Boudreau's practical four-step framework provides a roadmap for your organisation to transition to the new world of work.

"Reinventing Jobs cuts through the hype and hysteria and shows leaders how to apply automation and artificial intelligence in their organisations. Jesuthasan and Boudreau are the clear-eyed guides every organisation needs," says Daniel H. Pink.

Key Concepts

To achieve the optimal combinations of humans and automation, leaders must implement the following four-step framework:

  1. Deconstruct existing jobs into key tasks and categorise them.

  2. Determine the payoff of each task: Estimate the relationship between the performance and strategic value of each task.

  3. Identify automation options: Consider the different types of AI and robotics capable of performing each task.

  4. Reinvent the job by optimally combining human and automated work: Create new jobs by determining which human tasks should be substituted, augmented, or transformed by automation.

Optimising work and automation

Step One: Deconstruct the Job

Contrary to popular belief, automation seldom simply replaces the people doing a job. Instead, existing jobs are reconfigured, splitting their duties and responsibilities between human and non-human collaborators. The first step in this process requires leaders to break down each existing job into its key work tasks.

For example, a bank teller’s tasks include:

  • Greeting customers.

  • Verifying account balances.

  • Withdrawing and counting cash for customers.

  • Recommending additional bank services.

  • Providing customer service.

  • Collaborating with designers to improve products and processes.

Once a job has been deconstructed, leaders must determine which tasks are best suited for automation. They need to identify where each task falls along the three dimensions of automation compatibility:

  1. Repetitive vs variable: Repetitive work is highly compatible with automation. For example, the repetitive task of processing withdrawals can easily be done by an automated teller machine (ATM). Variable tasks, however, such as finding new ways to improve bank products, requires a human mind.

  2. Independent vs interactive: Independent work like calculating cash balances can be performed by an ATM. Interactive tasks like talking with customers may be better conducted by human bank tellers.

  3. Physical vs mental: Both types of work can be automated, but generally more physical work is suited for automation, while tasks that use cognitive abilities are suited to humans. For example, ATMs dispense cash to customers, but human bank tellers recommend the most appropriate additional bank services.

Step Two: Assess the Relationship Between Task Performance and Strategic Value

Even when a task is repetitive, independent, or physical and can be automated, that doesn’t mean it should be automated. Too often, companies wrongly automate tasks simply because a robot is capable of doing the work. A more productive approach realises that automation is only worthwhile if it provides the payoff that impacts strategic goals that include cost efficiency (but often go well beyond it). To determine the optimal role of automation, leaders must estimate its return on improved performance (ROIP).

ROIP is a spectrum determined by two things: the level of task performance and the strategic value of that performance. When depicted on a chart, the ROIP spectrum appears as a curve with value as the vertical dimension and performance level as the horizontal dimension. It can be divided into four sections:

  1. Negative value: Poor performance produces significant negative value, but improvement beyond the standard produces little additional value. The goal is to minimise errors.

  2. Constant value: A wide range of performance produces little additional value. The goal is to reduce variance.

  3. Incremental value. There’s a consistent incremental increase in value for each incremental performance increase. The goal is to raise performance incrementally.

  4. Exponential value: There’s an exponential positive relationship between increased performance and strategic value. The goal is to achieve performance breakthroughs that exponentially impact value.

Step Three: Identify Automation Options

Every leader should become familiar with three categories of automation:

  1. Robotic process automation (RPA): The simplest type of automation, RPA is often used for high-volume, low-complexity tasks like transferring data between software systems. RPA is best for repetitive, independent, and mental work.

  2. Cognitive automation (artificial intelligence): AI is capable of recognising patterns and performing complex tasks. Whether through reinforcement learning or self-learning, machine learning and natural language processing can transform many forms of cognitive work.

  3. Social robotics: The combination of robotics with mobility, sensors and AI that enable them to work interactively and physically with humans. Social robotics work with humans in myriad ways and can take any form, from flying drones to walking anthropoids. Social robotics are effective for both routine and non-routine tasks.

Are you aware of how much your business can benefit from HR automation during the onboarding phase of the employee lifecycle? Take a look at our free eGuide about Employee Lifecycle Automation that outlines everything you need to know about onboarding success. Better still, we offer our Employee Onboarding software FOR FREE! Request your personalised demonstration here.

Step Four: Reinvent and Optimise

The final step in the framework requires leaders to decide how to optimally combine human and automated work. Leaders must first understand the three different roles that automation can play:

1. Substitute for human work: In scenarios where the task is repetitive and independent with a negative, constant or incremental-value ROIP, automation can replace human workers. For example:

  • Social robotics can substitute human workers as factory floor inspectors.

  • Banks can gather data on mortgage applicants by analysing their tax records and social media accounts to calculate borrower risk.

2. Augment human workers: In scenarios where the work is variable with incremental or exponential-value ROIP, automation can be used to help improve human workers’ performances. For example:

  • The Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot, which is a cobot, is used by surgeons to offer a high degree of surgical precision.

  • GE technicians use cognitive automation to analyse their machinery’s performance patterns and predict optimal maintenance.

3. Create new work: In scenarios where the work is variable and interactive with incremental or exponential value ROIP, automation can generate new, unique opportunities for humans to dramatically enhance their value. For example:

  • Cognitive automation can be used to help identify the particular types of post-treatment care and counselling needed by cancer patients, allowing human caregivers to match the care to the patient.

  • Insurance companies combine RPA, remote image processing, and cognitive automation to assess their clients’ claims quicker and with much greater precision. The human appraiser is transformed from analysing claims in the field to reviewing the automated analysis and providing customers with concierge level service.

Once leaders understand the four-step framework, they need to learn how to apply it cohesively within the organisation. The following six questions provide a succinct overview of how to reinvent a job with automation:

1. What are the key tasks of the job?
2. Are the tasks:

  • Repetitive or variable?

  • Independent or interactive?

  • Physical or mental?

3. Is the ROIP (return on improved performance) of the task:

  • Negative (reduces mistakes)?

  • Constant (reduces variance)?

  • Incremental (improves value in a linear manner)?

  • Exponential (improves value in a transformative manner)?

4. Which of the following types of automation are available for the tasks:

  • RPA?

  • Cognitive automation?

  • Social robotics?

5. Will automation substitute workers, augment workers, or create new work?
6. What is the optimal way to reinvent this job, combining human and automated work?

When viewed through the above lens, human-automation collaboration feels more logical, less scary, and more like a process that can have positive benefits for workers. However, as the above framework also makes abundantly clear - getting it right will require sound, intelligent, well-research and well-planned implementation by HR professionals and leadership. Easier said than done... In the next blog in this series we will look at the impacts automation will have on leadership and the very nature of the organisation itself.

Is your business ready to leverage automation in your organisation so that you can free your employees from repetitive, manual tasks forever? We've created an eGuide that visualises the entire employee lifecycle and how you can design an intelligent workplace with a healthy human-automation collaboration.

Get Your Employee Lifecycle Management Guide

Image credit: Willis Towers Watson

Book summary credit:

Topics: performance management, Performance Management Software, Employee Onboarding Software, The future of work, Human automation collaboration, Reinventing jobs, Applying automation to work, John Boudreau, Ravin Jesuthasan, Employee onboarding

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