Why Automation and AI are not making people more productive

AI and automation increase productivity when implemented for mechanical and repetitive tasks, but often not when applied to knowledge-based work or in collaborative environments. However, this doesn't have to be the case.

Harvard Business Review published an article which indicated that onboarding AI and automation within creative environments only works where it becomes ‘part of the team’ and is focused on the desired aims and outcomes from the very beginning of its implementation.

Let’s get straight to the point: automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are not making people as productive as we had expected. It’s not because of the technology, but rather because of how companies implement it. When we think about business process improvement, we think about the approach developed for manufacturing, where mechanic operations replace repetitive tasks. This kind of automation is not useful for organizational knowledge work or environments where collaboration is required to achieve results.

Harvard Business Review recently published an article, “A Better Way to Onboard AI.” The main conclusion is that in order to successfully onboard AI and automation, employees need to participate in the design and implementation of these solutions. These technologies should assist people first, and, over the longer term, eventually the technology becomes a part of the team. Algorithms should work together with people, be reliable and understandable.

Now, what does it mean when automatic translation or data extraction are part of the team, or when interactive applications with automated reminders are part of the team? It means that people are designing their work environment by adding elements of predictable productivity, focusing on the goal of the process or service they are delivering, with AI and automation as tools in the toolbox. They are creating an application to make work results more predictable and reliable.

As Peter Drucker wrote 20 years ago, knowledge workers should know the purpose, not the task, and decide for themselves how to reach the goal. AI and automation should become tools for knowledge workers, so they can be more productive in achieving goals or service levels.

I predict that companies who use these technologies to power their environments and educate their people on how to use them for better, more predictable, outcomes will win by providing the best service and building better products. We don’t see this technology being implemented very rapidly because there is a dilemma of technology ownership and control. People are comfortable with simple systems, where standard processes and knowledge can be implemented in document management or ERP systems. The next step is to extract more intelligence from people and make it visible and accessible on the process level.

The fundamental question to ask is: who will benefit from this? I think AI and automation will start booming in our work environment when businesses and employees collaboratively answer the question of who benefits. Currently, it is clear how the company can benefit, but we need to discuss why employees can embrace these technologies. I’m optimistic that perceptions will change in the short term. I believe that AI and automation will help us achieve more in our work and personal lives, and as a result, will help us live more meaningful lives. As managers, we need to build an enterprise-wide automation vision showing and explaining opportunities for all employees. As employees, we need to learn about these new technologies and how they can help us become better professionals. As the great Michelangelo said at age 87, “I am still learning.”

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