How to work with Machines: Four Skills for the Era of Artificial Intelligence

The Luddites in the 18th Century feared the ‘spinning jenny’ loom would take away their jobs; but in fact it led to huge productivity gains while creating new jobs and skills. AI has a similar potential to free up human talent for more creative and value-added roles, as well as inspiring wider opportunities for growth, cost and time savings, efficiencies and innovation.

AI is already part of our lives and everyday technology – in the form of virtual assistants in our phones, robots in our car factories and much more. This change in labour dynamics is supported by the latest research from Gartner which suggests that by 2030 virtual talent spending will exceed 10 per cent of human staff costs. The question is not should we allow AI and automation into the workplace, but how do we manage its integration to bring benefits to employees and the companies they work for. The onus is on management and staff to really make this work – and we have identified four essential skills to help them thrive in this new world:

1)      Getting the most out of AI systems:  AI, robots and automated systems need to be managed, and this is very different to managing people. We will need to get used to having new types of colleagues who aren’t human, and also learn how to get the best out of them. Machines have unbeatable memory and capacity to process vast amounts of information, but do not come close to making the leaps of logic that typify human ingenuity and creativity. Where man was born to break the rules, machines are born to follow the rules; both working in tandem offer an unparalleled acceleration in productivity.  As it is with managing people, the quality of the output is often only as good as the quality of the brief and objectives. Setting these in the context of automated and robotic systems will be a vital skill.

Automated systems prompt us to document all maintenance tasks and create accurate records for a vast number of processes currently carried out manually and offering little tracking data. When these are analysed, patterns can be spotted and addressed at a core, structural level which helps prevent recurring issues. In such a way, IT personnel, in partnership with machines, become focused on pre-empting problems rather than reactive incident management, preventing recurrence of these problems and hence fundamentally improving the performance of a business.

2)      Analysing data for competitive advantages: The introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will see the creation of the IT Data Intelligence Officer. These highly skilled workers will be able to filter and interpret the vast amounts of data stemming from automated procedures and transform it into valuable intelligence. The ability to see the bigger picture, and spot trends and opportunities will become a key skill within IT, as it maximises the varying abilities of both people and machines.

One of the most popular new job roles within technology and especially AI is a Data Scientist – a role that didn’t exist (under that name, at least) ten years ago. Demand for commercially savvy data analysts is already vastly outstripping supply, with companies including Microsoft, Facebook and Google on massive hiring spree. Another example is a demand for candidates within AI organisations who combine skills in mathematical logic with applied philosophy – essentially taking human wisdom and knowledge and turning into a format that machines can understand.

3)      Strength in AI implementation: As with any new system or even employee, the overall success is largely driven by management. AI and automation within an organisation will only be as good as the team looking after it. There are two core elements to effectively enable changes – education and incentives:

Education: Successful leadership will involve educating the workforce about how automation and overhauling the existing operational model can result in more enjoyable, strategic and creative job roles, and how people and machines working together will bring more productivity and increased revenues. Management needs to counter the perception that automation will force widespread redundancies and other problems. 

Incentives: Once the correct technology is in place, staff must be incentivised to assist in the smooth running of the transition. Incentives may come in many forms including financial rewards, the offer of additional training or a better role within the organisation. This needs to be communicated from the highest level and filtered down throughout the workforce. The stronger the management team implementing the new operational model, the greater the chance of success will be. Alongside incentives, workers must be given the tools to be able to succeed – be it financing, time, technology or management support.

4)      Adaptation and ambition: Leadership can pave the way, but success will greatly depend on each individual’s willingness to adapt. Those who are willing to embrace change and work at updating their skillset to match the requirements of new roles will reap the rewards. Within the IT function, particularly, IT managers need to think about how they adapt to managing automated processes rather than organising their functions around the more limited capacity of manual workers. This is massive shift in mind-set, but it will lead to greater opportunity for more highly skilled and varied job roles.

This adaptation can help move IT from a back office function to a strategic division of an organisation. An IT staff member who, for example, develops new algorithms or systemic improvements has the potential to completely transform a business, turning IT from a cost centre to a profit centre. While any kind of restructuring will inevitably be met with a degree of resistance, in the medium to longer term the new model has the potential to deliver far greater benefits to a company’s entire employee base.

We need to remember that people’s skills will be evolving and not static. Each new technological development creates roles that were previously unheard of a decade before. For example, the Twitter and Facebook revolution has led to the creation of tens of thousands of social media experts and even entire agencies dedicated to a new business need.

While it poses many challenges to the status quo, AI-fuelled automation offers huge benefits to both employees and businesses as a whole. However, in order to reap the greatest rewards, senior management must guide, support and fund the transition of the workforce.

The organisations that invest the time and money into the long term progress of the business and their employees are the ones who will enjoy the greatest success financially. The individuals within organisations who are most prepared to learn new skills and work with machines, rather than against them, will be most likely to take their careers to the next level. Every era of technological change has been met with resistance, but ultimately it has also brought about a huge amount of progress and freedom for workforces and employers.

Jonathan Crane, Chief Commercial Officer, IPsoft