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The Impact of Technology on the Future of Work: From Looking Digital to Being Digital

Discover the impact technology is already having on the future of work.


Businesses are finding it challenging to capture the full value of revolutionary breakthroughs in digital technology.

Many have figured out how to use digital technology to drive down costs and become more efficient, akin to “looking digital.”

Some, however, are taking things further and transforming data into new revenue and new sources of value. This, more pervasive change is what we mean by “being digital.”

The move from looking to being requires corporations undertake a deep shift in the way they do business.

For business leaders, that shift requires as much attention to culture and organization as it does to the technology itself.

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Looking digital versus being digital video: Intelligent digital processes are changing the nature of work in at least four distinct ways: real-time adaptation, experiment-driven design, use of robotics and edge-centric decision making.


Technologies are coalescing into “intelligent digital processes” that change the key aspects of work designincluding the who, what, when, where and how.

Over the next five years, new digital technologies promise to change work outcomes and work experiences dramatically for employees of all sorts. This includes manual workers, knowledge workers and managers alike across a wide array of industries.

The digital difference—or what we refer to as the difference between “looking digital and being digital”—derives from the ability of a new generation of technologies to augment—rather than replace—the cognitive, collaborative and physical capabilities of human beings.

Managers must be prepared to undertake shifts—deep shifts, both cultural and technical--according to research conducted by our Institute for High Performance and our Accenture Labs.

Key Findings

Digital refers to an ensemble of new technologies that enhance the collection and analysis of information in ways that dramatically augment the capacity of human beings.

Six underlying components of digital will have the greatest impact on the design of work:

  • Ubiquitous data streams—Physical and virtual sensors combined with high capacity networks that make it possible to process and store many large streams of data.

  • Advanced analytics and modeling—Tools that transform information into scalable process improvements.

  • Rich digital representations—Software that translates physical objects into data files that can drive programmable tools, robots and 3D printers.

  • Cognitive augmentation—Technologies that "learn" by observation and offload routine knowledge work to automated assistants.

  • Physical augmentation—Advanced robotic devices that adapt to their environment and are sufficiently small, safe and flexible to be inserted into human workflows.

  • Collaborative augmentation—Software that directly improves the ways employees coordinate work and co-create new products.

These technologies are coalescing into “intelligent digital processes” that change the key aspects of work design—this includes the who, what, when, where and how work gets done.


The benefits of being digital are clear. The biggest challenges in making the transition from looking to being digital may lie in what’s required of leaders.

Management needs to recognize that a deep shift is necessary and to start building the foundation for it right away. They will called to:

  • Exercise judgment in reconciling what the intelligent tools recommend and what history, culture and customers demand.

  • Encourage responsible experimentation and deal with the inevitable failures or breakdowns that experimentation produces.

  • Translate strategic direction into operational action.

  • Employ new digital tools in new ways and develop and deploy the right talents.

Organizations that can drive this new management mindset will become truly digital faster and more effectively.

Executive Summary Infographic

Intelligent digital processes are transforming the way work gets done.


Experiment-Driven Design—Video

Experiment-driven design is a new work practice that is emerging among companies that will lead in the digital era. One case study of experiment-driven design involves an automotive manufacturer that uses virtual studios for engineers, customers and suppliers to talk about optimal instrument panel designs.

Real-Time Adaptation—Video

Real-time adaptation is a new work practice that is emerging among companies that will lead in the digital era. It is a practice that utility businesses are using to be much more responsive to changes in their environment.

Case Studies

Edge-Centric Decision-Making with 7-Eleven: From the Boardroom to the Backroom

Front-line employees at 7-Eleven, Inc. have the information, the tools and the authority to make key decisions.

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Edge-Centric Remedies: India’s Point-of-Care Health Services

Edge-centric decision-making is transforming the delivery of healthcare services in rural India

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Experimental Design with Audi’s Virtual Lab

Audi's award-winning infotainment systems are built with experimental design

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Full Speed Ahead: Real-Time Adaptation at GE Transportation

GE's Transportation RailConnect 360 analyzes rail network data to help operators decide to re-route, slow or speed trains.

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MIT FRIDA: When Human Met Machine

MIT's FRIDA robot can assess individual human workers' habits and adapt its actions accordingly.

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Oblong’s Mezzanine: Adapting and Reacting to Real-Time Technologies

Oblong's Mezzanine allows managers and employees opportunities to collaboratively respond to challenges as they surface.

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Real-Time Collaborative Treatment with GE Healthcare’s Image Exchange

Image Exchange is a technology that enables the clinical community to work in real-time adaptation.

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Recombination at Amazon and Kiva Systems: Balancing Human and Machine Capabilities

In Amazon warehouses, humans and robots work side-by-side to fulfill orders

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Systemic, Real-Time Collaboration with Palantir: From CIA to NGO

Palantir’s technology enables members of organizations to collaborate in real time and operate in a real-time adaptive mode.

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      Dr Robert J. Thomas
          Dr Alex Kass

Robert J. Thomas is the former global managing director of the Accenture Institute for High Performance. He currently provides subject matter expertise in client for Accenture and continues to lead a team in several research areas for the AIHP focusing on leadership and transformational change. He attained his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz and a doctoral degree from Northwestern University.

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Alex has over 20 years experience working on issues at the intersection of information technology, human learning, and human performance. He currently leads the research program on social collaboration in Accenture Labs. He has a Ph.D. in computer science from Yale.

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