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Tapping a Valuable Resource: Human-Automation Collaboration

You've freed your people of manual tasks! Now what? Congratulations. You've embarked on your digital transformation journey. More than that, you've already crossed some significant terrain.

Depending on what area of the business you've automated, you've no doubt addressed the area of manual error, reducing the likelihood of mistakes, as well as the corresponding time and expense required to fix them. The processes you've automated will now operate more efficiently and expediently, which should make your customers, as well as other supply chain partners, happier. The automation is now collecting and producing valuable data you can use to better understand and further optimize your operations.

But what about those people who've been handling those existing manual tasks? What might their contribution be now that they have more capacity? You've just re-invigorated a vital resource, so let's consider how to put it to work for you in more valuable, rewarding ways.

Newly Expanded Roles in Their Current Area

This is exciting, right? Certainly, for them as they have an opportunity to grow and become more valuable to the organization. It's good news for you, too. Almost like adding manpower without having to hire anybody.

It's easy to imagine there are some traditional, albeit sexier roles these employees might have their eyes on. Folks who've spent far too many hours keying in orders manually might be envisioning a role in sales, with potential financial rewards and the opportunity to climb the company org chart. You may be looking to create another department or add a location, and now you have existing team members to spearhead that effort.

Collaborating With the Tech

Perhaps the best way to utilize them is by teaming them with the technology you've employed. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Robots Need Us More Than We Need Them, discussed that while artificial intelligence is making so many things faster and easier for companies, a collaboration between man and machine is making a significant impact.

One example comes from the National Football League. A few years ago, the NFL employed artificial intelligence to search and tag its massive vaults of video content in order to build promos and highlight reels. But its staff had to teach the AI what to look for, then be there to approve what the AI selected, and ultimately, edit the footage together for the final pieces. The entire process is significantly more efficient than the previous all-human approach. But without the people side of it, the final product would suffer.

Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade products, is another example of a company using a human-machine approach. Etsy has a robust search engine, as you might expect for an online service with 50 million items for sale. Though the engines are ideal for sorting products by category, size, material, etc., there wasn't an effective way to categorize by aesthetic style until the company's merchandising team could "train" the AI by creating and applying style labels across different categories.

The Houston Astros are almost universally recognized as Major League Baseball's leaders in the use of analytics and big data. A team that, only a few years ago was annually setting records for futility, they went beyond even the Moneyball Oakland A's when it came to bucking tradition. Today they are a consistent winner, competing in three of the last five World Series.

In his recent book, Astroball, The New Way To Win It All, Ben Reiter outlines how, in turning the franchise around, then General Manager Jeff Luhnow and his personnel staff didn't trust data alone. They still paired the analytics with the experience and instincts of professional scouts when evaluating and developing young talent. Or when bringing in an experienced player and asking him to rethink his approach to pitching or hitting.

Numbers have always held a sacred place in baseball. Now there are more advanced statistics than ever. Exit velocities and launch angles (the ball off the bat) and expected fielding averages (likelihood a player makes a defensive play) are fixtures in the play-by-play and commentary of every MLB game. But the data itself doesn't lead to significant change without experienced employees distilling the information for relevance and determining how best to use it.

The employees who up until recently have been elbows deep in the "old school" processes—manual order entry, bidding potential carriers, procurement minutia or digging for clues to a customer service issue—probably have some key perspectives and insight that could be valuable in helping you interpret the stories your expanded data is trying to tell.

If you've had employees who were customer-facing—maybe they took orders over the phone or fielded customer service inquiries—they could be valuable in helping you interpret what your new visibility is revealing. They also may have some of the best ideas for increasing collaboration with your supply chain partners.

Helping Other Departments Launch Their Automation Efforts

If your organization is like a lot of smart, practical businesses, you're pursuing your digital journey in a pragmatic, manageable way, digitizing and automating one area, one business unit, one set of processes at a time. So, you understand that the first step in the digitization and automation journey is mapping out your processes in detail, identifying what should be happening, what is happening, what gaps exist, where the problems lie, etc. Who better to assist and consult with the next group than members of the team that just went through it?

Locating Potential Key Employees

Another opportunity that could materialize from your automation efforts regards leadership. Among those employees who you have freed of manual tasks might just be key players for the company moving forward. Maybe even senior leadership.

In another recent article in HBR, How to Spot—and Develop—High-Potential Talent in Your Organization, authors James Intagliata, Jennifer Sturman and Stephen Kincaid discuss a model for predicting leadership potential that is based not on past performance or achievements, but rather on "observable, measurable behaviors." The behaviors could help predict an individual's "ability to grow and handle increased complexity in new roles."

They suggest that the traditional way companies evaluate potential hires "can work well if you're filling a known role and candidates have had chances to demonstrate the required skills and characteristics. But past performance doesn't tell you who can do things they haven't done before."

The authors conducted in-depth analyses of 1,500 individuals from entry-level positions to senior leaders, looking at metrics other than the usual projects completed, initiatives pursued, revenues generated, etc. They incorporated other factors including, "how they leverage their intelligence; their drive: what motivates them and how they apply their energy; and how they interact with those around them."

The authors stated that in a study looking only at the earlier phases of leaders’ careers, their model "differentiated those who later made it to the C-suite from those who didn’t two times out of three. The model significantly outperforms typical success rates for hiring and promotion decisions, which tend to be a 50/50 roll of the dice."

Again, this is an approach that looks at the potential of someone who could be entry-level, and who has never performed the duties of a particular position in question.

Think about that. The person you just liberated from the bowels of invoice reconciliation just may be a future COO. It's not called transformation for nothing.

The Bigger Things

The challenges that business leaders have faced over the past several years, and will continue to face in those ahead, apply constant pressure to optimize and customize, diversify and differentiate. Fortunately, we live in a time where technology and innovation are evolving at an accelerated pace to help us meet those pressing demands. We should all take advantage of it.

But let's not lose sight of the human impact.

No one's enterprise was built, no one's dream was conceived to serve technology. No matter how advanced or sophisticated, technology is a tool to serve us. To help us create, build, grow and experience. You know, the bigger things.

Digitization and automation have an array of tangible, dollars-and-cents benefits. But freeing up your people from their mundane tasks and accessing their as-yet untapped potential just might be the most valuable thing you do.