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Five ways to prepare tech employees for the future of work

At the MIT Sloan CIO symposium, assessing the impact of AI, machine learning, and tech platforms.

By Brian Eastwood  |  May 25, 2017

OTTO 1500 v2

A warehouse employee works with an OTTO 1500, a self-driving robot that moves pallets, racks, and other large payloads

There’s no question that artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, chatbots, devices connected to the Internet of Things, and other rapidly advancing technologies all pose threats to the jobs that make up a large chunk of the global economy — and to the livelihood of the men and women who hold those jobs.

Finding a way to mitigate the impact of these digital transformations on workers as well as businesses was a key theme of the May 24 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. Here are five ideas from IT and strategy executives who have led the way in digital innovation without leaving their employees behind.

Pursue business platforms and services enabled by technology
This is the holy grail, said Lucille Mayer, head of client experience delivery and global innovation at BNY Mellon. “You have to change behavior so that tech is the business, a partner at the table to … transform the business model and become more digital.”

Making this change happen requires a cultural shift that starts with executive leadership and product line CEOs, Mayer said. At BNY Mellon, “all the product lines had to come up with their own digital transformation roadmap” to create consumable services and “get the biggest bang for their platform.” This initiative helped the investment firm shift its offerings from siloed products to a portfolio of products, which provided a more seamless customer experience, she said.

fowlerGeneral Electric Co. vice president and CIO Jim Fowler discusses how technology drives process at the May 24 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. Photo: Kent Reichert

General Electric Co., on the other hand, built a platform that connects its machines, its enterprise customers, and GE employees, said vice president and CIO Jim Fowler. This means that business processes are now tied to a machine (and not a person) issuing a material replenishment order or maintenance request. When pursuing such technology initiatives, he said, it’s important to ask, “How do we do this and add value to the customer?”

Augment, don’t automate
One of the biggest questions about the technology’s impact on the future of work is whether AI and machine learning will complement human workers or replace them outright. While some jobs will in fact become automated — sorry, paper-pushers — those roles that require supervision, initiative, and working with complex equipment will be augmented by AI, said George Westerman, principal research scientist for the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.

AI can be used in several ways to improve employee productivity. “Take the intelligence of the best knowledge worker who just nails it every time,” said Ross Meyercord, executive vice president and CIO at Salesforce. “How can the machine understand the processes that person does and raise the output of the average worker?”

For example, Cogito’s emotional intelligence software can analyze call center conversations and determine, for example, whether agents talk too fast or interrupt callers, CTO Ali Azarbayejani said. This real-time feedback helps agents learn on the job and better serve callers, he said — and it gives a company a competitive edge in customer service.

Focus on problem-solving
Fowler said he was taught that process drives technology, but said that’s no longer true. When AI and other technologies drive process, workers have little choice but to take on different roles. Instead of processing transactions, workers must get used to forming and disbanding teams that use the data presented to them to solve problems. “That’s the future of work,” he said.

This forces workers to be agile, Meyercord said: “Don’t be stuck to your existing roadmap, that North Star direction.” The days of building a product once and getting it right are gone, he added. “It’s not that people had an end solution nailed at day one, but they had the ability to be open-minded, they have the metadata exhaust, and they iterate as they go.”

To embrace agility, organizations need to adopt what Meyercord described as a “citizen development model.” This flips the concept of shadow IT on its head, as it encourages ideas from the growing percentage of employees who work outside the IT department but nonetheless understand tech.

“What becomes interesting for our jobs is, how do you encourage grassroots innovation and standardize it to get to standard products and services for global processes?” he asked. “How do we bring them in and incubate the best ideas and bring them into production?”

Don’t set lofty expectations
When new technology comes along, hype is sure to follow. Executives need to set clear expectations about what a product can and cannot do.

OTTO Motors deploys fleets of self-driving vehicles in industrial settings such as warehouses. These autonomous fleets can deliver savings, since as much as 75 percent of the cost of any item is a “tax” on people moving it, but they can’t replace human drivers just yet, CTO and co-founder Ryan Gariepy said. With so many variables to consider, he added, “there will need to be interventions from time to time.”

Likewise, Cogito’s Azarbayejani said AI chatbots aren’t yet ready to solve the biggest problem facing call centers. Bots can handle simple customer interactions, but they aren’t yet set up to pull data from disconnected systems. Personal agents are needed to mitigate those types of problems, he said.

Encourage people to learn
Robot drivers won’t be all over the road tomorrow, but it’s not unreasonable to predict that 90 percent of truck driving jobs will be eliminated within a generation, Gariepy said. To confront this, OTTO Motors’ customers teach their drivers to manage the robot fleets instead of simply moving materials.

Companies must be proactive about education and retraining, Gariepy added, saying that a laid-off truck driver may not be able to afford to go back to school.

Nor can white-collar workers remain complacent. As data is commoditized, and it becomes easier to build predictive models, “even I have to step up my game,” said Ernest Ng, Salesforce’s senior director of employee success strategy and people analytics. “Everybody needs to think of ways to grow.”

Health Management Systems does this by encouraging employees to pursue internal training opportunities, even if they aren’t directly related to their current role. One year into the program, nearly two-thirds of employees have participated, and many have offered to teach classes, said Cynthia Nustad, the company’s executive vice president and chief strategy officer.

“We want people to stay and unleash their passion to do what they want,” she said.