Of all of the technologies that underpin the 4th Industrial Revolution, AI has undoubtedly received the most hype in terms of its ability to transform the workplace.  Breathless tomes have predicted the demise of millions of jobs as automated systems frogmarch their way through workplace after workplace.

Except the reality is somewhat different.  A recent report on the state of digital transformation by MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte Digital suggests that progress is glacial.  This is despite executives telling INSEAD researchers that AI and big data have the biggest potential for disruptive change.

This enthusiasm hasn’t actually resulted in much of significance however.  Indeed, a recent survey of 2,300 executives conducted by MIT Tech Review and Pure Storage found a C-suite that was enthusiastic about the prospects of AI-driven change, but with little really to show but enthusiasm.

Many are engaging in pilot projects, but there is a profound sense of ‘me too’ in them all, as the pilots are usually at arms length from the rest of the business and with little hope or evidence that they will be scaled up.  Indeed, in many organizations there is no resource to do any scaling up.

Reinventing jobs

According to Ravin Jesuthasan and John Boudreau, the only way we will successfully integrate AI technologies into the workplace is if we go back to basics and begin to fully understand the tasks each job consists of.  In Reinventing Jobs, their latest book, they outline four steps to successfully apply automation to the workplace:

    1. Deconstruct the job. This is the vital first step to make.  As mentioned in a recent post, jobs are made up of dozens of individual tasks, some of which will be suitable, some of which won’t be.  It’s only when you break down each job in this way however that you can make this kind of assessment.


    1. Assess the relationship between job performance and strategic value. The next step is to then analyze each job to understand how important it is to the strategic outcomes of the business.  There are likely to be certain tasks that are hugely important, and certain tasks that are much less so.


    1. What automation is possible? From here, you can begin to explore the way technology can help improve processes, either fully automating them or augmenting the human being.  They break potential automation down into three categories: robotic process automation, cognitive automation and collaborative robotics, with each technology best suited to perform certain tasks.  They also highlight how tempting it is to jump to this point straight away, bypassing the first two steps that are so important.


  1. Optimize the work. The final step then brings all of this together and implements automation based upon your findings about where technology can make a real benefit to the work your employees do.

Starting at the beginning

Unfortunately, it’s a process that many organizations are not undertaking today, with many jumping ahead to the technology before they understand the work it could integrate into.

It’s perhaps not surprising therefore, that the latest Willis Towers Watson Global Future of Work survey identifies this as one of the main barriers to successful automation today.  It highlights the crucial role HR can play in deconstructing and reconstructing jobs, and defining reskilling pathways to take into account the way AI-driven technologies will change the roles we have today (note change, not destroy!).

Sadly, there is little sign that HR is taking up the challenge, with just 5% of respondents to the survey saying they’re ready and prepared for what lies ahead.

“It’s critical for employers to address these issues in order to fully automate their work, adequately understand the new work requirements and address skill gaps,” the authors say.

The importance of making this step cannot be overstated however, with clear lessons from the business process engineering movement of the 1990s.  Indeed, it was in 1990 that Michael Hammer, the godfather of reengineering, wrote his seminal article on the topic for the Harvard Business Review.

The usual methods for boosting performance—process rationalization and automation—haven’t yielded the dramatic improvements companies need. In particular, heavy investments in information technology have delivered disappointing results—largely because companies tend to use technology to mechanize old ways of doing business. They leave the existing processes intact and use computers simply to speed them up.

But speeding up those processes cannot address their fundamental performance deficiencies. Many of our job designs, work flows, control mechanisms, and organizational structures came of age in a different competitive environment and before the advent of the computer. They are geared toward efficiency and control. Yet the watchwords of the new decade are innovation and speed, service and quality.

It is time to stop paving the cow paths. Instead of embedding outdated processes in silicon and software, we should obliterate them and start over. We should “reengineer” our businesses: use the power of modern information technology to radically redesign our business processes in order to achieve dramatic improvements in their performance.

Despite little evidence that this lesson has been taken on board, it is nonetheless a lesson that we need to grasp if automation is to improve the workplace in the way its most enthusiastic supporters believe it will.

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