Do workers welcome the new era of robots? This question hardly features in the fevered debate about automation and artificial intelligence. There’s been too much speculative talk about the impact of technology in the distant future. That matters because, in the here and now, some companies are already introducing artificial intelligence and wrestling with the early management challenges.
Workers welcome digital technologies, according to global research into Digital Workforce Strategy by Accenture. Five times as many think digital will improve their job prospects as those who say it will worsen them. And those who believe digital will improve their working experience outnumber the pessimists by ten to one.
Should such enthusiasm surprise us?
Perhaps not. Our new measure of the digital economy indicates that 42% of US employment can be considered as digital. That is to say, there is already a large proportion of employment in which digital skills are significant and that can support digital business activities of one kind or another.
Clearly, many of these existing digital skills are not yet at the level of sophistication needed to exploit the full potential of digital disruption. But there is a broad foundation of skills that are relevant to emerging digital business models.
The rapid rise of the Millennials – already a third of the US workforce – will likely reinforce this foundation and drive even greater openness to the emerging world of robots and artificial intelligence.
Already, new intelligent systems are bringing not just greater productivity but greater precision to agriculture thanks to sensors, drones and other technologies. The finance sector is using robo-analysts to provide financial advice to banking clients. And smart glasses are helping field workers to access data and instructions as they repair equipment. These innovations are not making super humans. They are making humans super. Artificial intelligence augments the work they do and helps them do it better.
It’s no wonder that senior executives share the optimism of their employees. But there’s a challenge. Caught in the middle are managers, those who have to implement this significant change. And our recent analysis of managers shows that this critical body of employees has concerns.
Among the tasks that managers devote most time to today, many are prime candidates for a degree of automation: planning and coordinating work, monitoring and reporting and maintaining standards. Artificial intelligence will increasingly free managers from these time-consuming tasks to focus on work that is more uniquely human, or “judgment work,” which requires complex thinking, interpretation and higher-order reasoning. That could be providing more bespoke services to customers or more personal support to staff. And managers will be liberated to focus more on creativity and innovation.
Yet 57% of the managers we spoke to around the world are uncertain whether they have the skills to succeed in their role over the next five years. Many are concerned about the impact of artificial intelligence on their jobs. Part of their resistance boils down to trust. When asked if they would trust the advice of intelligent systems in making business decisions, only 14% of first-line managers said they strongly agree, compared to nearly half (46%) of executive-level managers.
What does the future hold?
The future calls for a more proactive effort to unite managers and machines. Not only do we need to accelerate the introduction of new intelligent systems, we need to encourage experimentation to mold those systems into the fabric of evolving processes and teams. This approach will show that digital is not something that happens to the workforce but something the workforce makes happen in their organisation.
The other critical step forward is to shift the expectations for management skills demanded in the future. Managers misunderstand the full spectrum of skills needed. More than 40% say that digital and technology skills will be amongst the most important they will need in the next five years. Less than half that proportion cite people development, coaching, collaboration or social networking.
In fact, stronger interpersonal skills will be paramount if managers are to have the confidence to inspire a more fluid, less structured workforce and to manage the introduction of new technologies in the first place. Above all, these hard to come by skills will be needed so that managers can support their teams as they learn to work with robots and as robots learn to work with them.
Find out more about Accenture’s research on the digital workforce strategy.