ACCENTURE CTO PAUL DAUGHERTY, AND HEAD OF IT AND INNOVATION JIM WILSON, DISCUSS WHY AI ISN’T THE FIRST TIME BUSINESSES HAVE HAD TO FACE WIDESCALE CHANGE
IN THEIR NEW BOOK, HUMAN+MACHINE, ACCENTURE’S TOP TECHNOLOGY MINDS SAY THE EMERGENCE OF AI ISN’T THE FIRST WIDESPREAD TRANSFORMATIVE EVENT THE WORLD OF BUSINESS IS HAVING TO FACE. IN FACT, IT’S THE THIRD IN JUST OVER 100 YEARS
The key to understanding the AI’s current and future impact is its transformation of business processes.
A widespread misconception is that AI systems, including advanced robotics and digital bots, will gradually replace humans in one industry after another. Self-driving vehicles, for example, will one day replace taxi, delivery, and truck drivers. That may be true for certain jobs, but what we’ve found in our research is that, although AI can be deployed to automate certain functions, the technology’s greater power is complementing and augmenting human capabilities.
In claims processing, for example, AI isn’t replacing the need for humans; instead, it’s doing the tedious grant work, collecting data and doing a preliminary analysis, freeing human claim processors to focus on resolving complex cases. In essence, machines are doing what they do best; performing repetitive tasks, analysing huge data sets, and handling routine cases. And humans are doing what they do best; resolving ambiguous information, exercising judgment in difficult cases, and dealing with dissatisfied customers. The kind of emerging symbiosis between man and machine is unlocking what we have called the third wave of business transformation.
To see how we got here, it helps to understand some historical context.
The first wave of business transformation involved standardised processes. This era was ushered in by Henry Ford, who deconstructed the manufacture of automobiles so that they could be made on an assembly line. Each of these steps in that overall process could then be measured, optimised, and standardised to achieve considerable gains in efficiencies.
The second wave consisted of automated process. This era emerged in the 1970s and peaked in the 1990s with the business process reengineering (BPR) movement, thanks to the advances in the information technology (IT): desktop computers, large data bases, and software the automated various back-office tasks. Among other companies, retailers like Walmart rode this wave to become worldwide powerhouses. Other firms were able to reinvent themselves. UPS, for example, transformed itself from a package-delivery service to a global logistics company.
Now, the third wave involves adaptive processes. This third era, which builds on the previous two, will be more dramatic than the earlier revolutions enabled by assembly lines and digital computers, and will usher in entirely new, innovative ways of doing business. The leading firms in many industries are now reimagining their processes to be more flexible, faster, and adaptable to the behaviours, preferences, and need of their workers at a given moment. This adaptive capability is being driven by real-time data rather than by an a priori sequence of steps. The paradox is that although these processes are not standardised or routine, they can repeatedly deliver better outcomes. In fact, leading organisations have been able to bring to market individualised products and services (as opposed to the mass-produced goods of the past), as well as deliver profitable outcomes.
Think like Waze
To help illustrate the profound difference between the process thinking and the new, consider the history of GPS navigation.
The first online maps were largely just a version of their paper counterparts. But soon, GPS navigation devices changed how we used maps, giving us directions after entering a destination. Even that, though, was still a fairly static process. Now, mobile map apps like Waze are taking advantage of real-time user data-about drivers’ locations and speed and well as crowd-
sourced information about traffic jams, accidents and other obstructions to create the perfect map in real time. All that data enables the systems to update directions enroute so that, if necessary, it can reroute drivers midcourse to minimise any possible delays. Whereas the old approach with GPS simply digitised a static paper-map route, Waze has combined AI algorithms and real-time data to create living, dynamic, optimised maps that can get people to their destinations as quickly as possible.
Business approaches that use AI merely for automating existing static processes are like the early GPS navigation devices, whereas the current era of symbiosis collaboration between humans and machines are like Waze in that those traditional processes are being completely reimagined.
Filling the “Missing Middle”
Unfortunately, popular culture has long promoted a man-versus-machine view – think of movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Terminator series. The idea of intelligent machines as a potential threat to mankind has a long history and has resulted in many executives adopting a somewhat similar perspective, thinking exclusively of machines as threatening to replace humans. But that view is not only woefully misguided, it’s also perniciously shortsighted.
The simple truth is that machines are not taking over the world, nor are they obviating the need for humans in the workplace. In this current era of business process transformation, AI systems are not a wholesale replacing us, rather, they are amplifying are skills and collaborating with us to achieve productivity gains that have previously not been possible.
The third wave has created a huge, dynamic, and diverse space in which humans and machines collaborate to attain orders-of-magnitude increases in business performance. We call this the “missing middle” – “missing” because almost no one talks about it, and only a small fraction of companies are working to fill this crucial gap (see the illustration below).
In the missing middle, humans work with smart machines to exploit what each party does best. Humans, for example, are needed to develop, train, and manage various AI applications. In doing so, they are enabling those systems to function as true collaborative partners. For their part, machines in the missing middle are helping people to punch above their weight, providing them with super human capabilities, such as the ability to process and analyse copious amounts of data from myriad sources in real time. Machines are augmenting human capabilities.
In the missing middle, humans and machines aren’t adversaries, fighting for each other’s jobs. Instead, they are symbiotic partners, each pushing the other to higher levels of performance. Moreover, in the missing middle, companies can reimagine their business processes to take advantage of collaborative teams of humans working alongside machines. It’s not just digital companies that are exploiting the missing middle. Rio Tinto, the global mining conglomerate, is a case in point. The company is using AI to manage its vast fleet of machinery – autonomous drills, excavators, earth movers, and so on – from a central control facility. This has freed human operates from working in dangerous mining conditions and also enabled Rio Tinto’s team of data analysis to analyse information from sensors on the remote equipment to uncover valuable insights for helping the firm manage its fleet more efficiently and safely.
Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI is co-authored by Paul Daugherty, Accenture’s chief technology & innovation officer, and Jim Wilson, managing director of information technology and business research at Accenture Research
“THE FIRST WAVE OF BUSINESS TRANSFORMATION INVOLVED STANDARDISED PROCESSES. THIS ERA WAS USHERED IN BY HENRY FORD, WHO DECONSTRUCTED THE MANUFACTURE OF AUTOMOBILES SO THAT THEY COULD BE MADE ON AN ASSEMBLY LINE”