Why People + Machines Is The Winning Formula For The Digital Age

people + machines

When business leaders think about using artificial intelligence (AI), they tend to look at what humans can do and what machines can do—then decide which tasks can be transferred from humans to machines. But that limited view sells both people and technologies short.

If you want to lead in the era of digitized business, what you should be thinking about is humans-machine collaboration. When they work together, both people and technologies become much more powerful than they are on their own. Equally important, companies can build on human-machine collaboration to reimagine business processes—everything from product development to customer service routines—and find new ways to compete and grow.

Reimagine, don’t replicate

Today, few companies have grasped the value of thinking in terms of human and machine, rather than human versus machine. We researched 1,500 corporations across all industry sectors and found only a handful that are taking advantage of the power of human-machine collaboration. Most companies are using AI to automate specific tasks and are seeing short-term productivity improvements. The leaders are using intelligent technologies to extend and complement human capabilities—and they are realizing exponential gains in efficiency and customer experience. In our survey, 71 percent of the companies that did the most to take advantage of human-machine collaboration saw a ten-fold improvement in at least one process.

“One lesson is abundantly clear: executives must rethink talent in the age of intelligent machines.”

In the factory, for example, manufacturers are using compact, intelligent robots that can operate alongside workers —so-called cobots. These robots can be easily programmed and reprogrammed and have the agility to work safely alongside employees. Cobots allow companies to create flexible assembly teams that can be put together quickly and deployed as needed to accommodate special orders or help the company respond to changes in demand. After a century of perfecting Henry Ford’s assembly line, automakers such as BMW are now reinventing their manufacturing processes.

In service industries, humans and intelligent machines are being teamed in ways that bring out the best in both. For example, in a bank’s customer-service center, humans and intelligent technology share the chores. Intelligent chatbots that can “understand” human speech (or parse a typed query from a smartphone) handle routine calls and administrative chores such as confirming the caller’s identification. The agent handles exceptions and complex questions, as well as complaints from customers who might switch banks if they don’t get personal attention.

Lesson one: focus on talent

One lesson is abundantly clear: executives must rethink talent in the age of intelligent machines. Instead of losing the knowledge and skills of employees, companies must understand the value of retraining and retaining people in this new era. The good news is that workers are up to the challenge: In a recent Accenture survey, two thirds said it will be important for them to build the skills to work with intelligent technology in the next three to five years.

Employees will also be empowered. They will be freed from the most repetitious, boring, and dangerous tasks—reading from a script in a call center or executing an awkward step on the assembly line. In one auto factory, cobots took on the job of installing door panels, which is a tricky job that was hard on workers and which a modern robot can do better. Now, the auto worker no longer risks injury and can spend more time on higher value tasks, including training cobots (which learn how to master new tasks from humans) and helping problem-solve on the factory floor to improve processes to raise productivity and quality. In the call center, agents have more time for upselling and cross-selling—and can increase their incomes as they help their companies grow.

So, don’t assume that employees are locked into the limiting “human vs. machine” mental model that is so common in popular culture. They are far more eager to work with intelligent tools than employers realize (in our survey, 62 percent said intelligent technologies will have a positive effect). To win in the era of intelligent machines, business leaders must tap into this desire to learn and grow and unleash the power of human-machine collaboration.