The People-Less Organisation

Robots on the March
By Trevor Clarke, Tech Research Asia co-founder and director

For years organisations around the world have tried to in vain to become a paper-less organisation. The recent surge in digitisation and mobilisation of processes has helped bring many closer, but very few have actually achieved this goal. In fact, it's far more accurate in my view to talk about being a less-paper-reliant organisation than a paper-less one. Many, many organisations still use paper for one reason or another.

The question I'd like to raise today, is whether we'll be having the same conversation and experience as regards our people because AI and robots continue their advance?

I don't think this is such an outrageous question to ask today. Will we have people-less organisations? Will it be less-people-reliant? When you look at the range of AI-based services, virtual assistants, machine learning, robotics, and cloud-based cognitive services available already and combine it with those on the horizon it's not that hard to imagine organisations with drastically reduced headcounts. Retailers, logistics firms, professional services, financial services, call centres, farms, and so many more types of organisations are ripe for end-to-end automation where people are removed from the transactions or processes.

The thing is, I haven't yet seen many organisations or policy makers seriously addressing this eminently feasible future vision. I would be encouraging serious thinking by IT and business leaders over the question of how you will use AI, cognitive services, and robots in your organisation and importantly, what this will do to your people. We know what the high-level research and commentary already says.

Forty per cent of jobs in Australia have a high probability of being susceptible to computerisation and automation in the next 10 to 15 years according to recent National ICT Australia research. Nomura Research Institute says it is 49% in Japan. There are similar expectations coming out of the UK from the BBC here, and from the original Frey and Osborne work which kicked it all off by looking at the US market here.

In contrast, McKinsey and Company, contend that the focus on occupations is misleading, and that we are better off looking at what tasks can be automated. The company's research suggests, "fewer than 5 percent of occupations can be entirely automated using current technology. However, about 60 percent of occupations could have 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated.

In the short term - i.e. the next couple of years - while there has been much made of examples like Japan's Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance using IBM's Watson to replace a few dozen workers, in our view there is little probability of wide-scale redundancies where people are replaced by AI or robots. We stress the "wide-scale" qualifier here, because we are also working with companies already exploring this possibility. It is more likely tasks will be automated first. So we expect the same thing that has happened with paper to happen here. In other words, for the majority it will be about becoming less-people reliant as opposed to people-less.

But in the long term the impact of this trend will be significant on people and societies and we can't rule out the latter becoming the norm. There is little scope for shielding your organisation from the impact this technological advancement.

And it is the impact on our people, which most leaders would acknowledge are often their most valuable resource today, that leads to the necessity of asking: Have you had a discussion with your leadership teams about being a less-people or people-less organisation?

Whether you think it is a good idea or not (for any reason) to replace your people or tasks with AI, cognitive services, or robots, this is an issue that all IT and business leaders across Asia Pacific (and the world) will face. There will be no avoiding it. Being prepared with a vision and a plan is just smart. Otherwise your people and culture will suffer and/or your competitive performance will. For some it will be a sudden and scorching impact, for others a slow burn. But the fact is the fires are already lit.

Asking the question and pursuing a discussion on the logic around how this might be implemented, might also help the organisation uncover new ideas and ways of doing things. Ideas are just as often borne in adversity as when faced with opportunity.