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Playing Well with Robots

Are robots coming for your job? Yes, but smart employers will see the benefits of using both humans and robots.

April 17, 2019
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Ask John Boudreau what he thinks about the hype that surrounded Amazon’s HQ2 move and his first response has nothing to do with location. “I’m most interested in how Amazon orchestrates human capital and automation working together,” Boudreau said.

Professional Leadership

As research director of the Center for Effective Organizations (CEO) and professor of management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business, Boudreau has been watching work automation for some time now. In 2015, he and collaborators Ravin Jesuthasan and David Creelman published Lead the Work: Navigating a World Beyond Employment (Jossey-Bass), which described how the traditional business model was adapting to a new work landscape where talent floats in and out of an organization.

According to the book, humans can be engaged in many different ways, with regular full-time employment being just one. In an increasing array of work, “Long-term employment has given way to medium- or short-term employment. . . . Leading organizations are accepting and taking advantage of the notion that talent has shown itself to be mutable.”

“We think of work as residing in a job. But break up work into its tasks and you can better figure out how you get things done through a combination of humans employees and non-employees, robots and machine learning.” —John Boudreau, research director for the Center for Effective Organizations and professor of management and organization

In a 2017 blog, Beyond Agile HR: Your Company Must Embrace Agile Work, posted on Cornerstone magazine’s ReWork website, Boudreau built on these concepts and their implications for workplace and organizational transformation. He argued work reinvention is perpetual and constant, with work requiring constant upgrades, just like technology. “Workers and leaders must perpetually replace old work routines and habits and, over time, the incremental change will produce exponential differences.”

Boudreau said, “Just as we learn that technology upgrades are both exhilarating and annoying, so leaders and workers must learn to embrace perpetual ‘upgrades’ in work and work arrangements.”

“Workers and leaders must perpetually replace old work routines and habits and, over time, the incremental change will produce exponential differences.”

Boudreau and Jesuthasan have now extended this idea to show how the fluid human capital model combines with work automation. In their new book, Reinventing Jobs: A 4-Step Approach for Applying Automation to Work (Harvard Business Review Press, October 2018), the researchers provided a framework for solutions that optimize human-automation combinations. 

A key finding is that optimal solutions almost never appear by asking, “Which jobs can replace humans with automation?” Rather, the optimal patterns require “deconstructing”  jobs into their tasks and realizing that work automation and the fluid human capital model will reinvent the job. “Employees will still do some proportion of the work, but other parts will be automated, and still others done by non-employees,” Boudreau said. “Jobs must be reinvented, not eliminated.”

Working Well Together

Boudreau said businesses like Amazon will engage humans in new ways. “We think of work as residing in a job. But break up work into its tasks and you can better figure out how you get things done through a combination of humans employees and non-employees, robots and machine learning.”

Boudreau and Jesuthasan suggest four distinct ways for companies to look at jobs that can help them understand how to implement change: deconstruct, optimize, automate and reinvent.

“This process,” Boudreau said, “enables companies to reinvent how work gets bundled into jobs and to create optimal human-machine combinations.”

In his article “What We Often Get Wrong About Automation,” published with Jesuthasan in Harvard Business Review in October 2018, Boudreau argues that while automation can sometimes substitute for human work, it also more importantly has the potential to create new, more valuable and more fulfilling roles for humans. “In fact,” he said, “automation often actually augments human workers, creating work that was never possible before.”

In the article, the researchers describe work reinvention in the oil and gas industry. They note that on a fully automated oil rig, the work of the humans becomes more like an air traffic controller working in a safe control center based in an attractive location.  “What’s interesting,” Boudreau said, “is that the value and thus the pay premium for this new work can be higher than the original job on the oil rig.”

The higher cost of compensation is offset by greater productivity. “However,” Boudreau said, “the benefits go beyond strict economic accounting. By reinventing jobs to optimize work between humans and automation, organizations can attract a larger and more qualified applicant pool and achieve better retention, greater safety, and increased diversity.”

The Right Match

Business leaders can find this sweet spot by using big data, Boudreau said.

“Data will reveal the optimal human/machine balance for a company. Then the challenge becomes successfully migrating tasks from people to machines or robots and doing that in ways that achieve financial goals and reflect the values of the organization, its employees and its stakeholders.”

Boudreau said his advice to employees these days is to ask, “‘Where’s my new work platform,’ not ‘Where’s my old job?’”

And to employers, he recommends asking, “‘How can I lead a constantly evolving workforce,’ not ‘how am I managing my employees?’”

He added, “We must keep thinking beyond conventional notions. We’re in wholly new work models now.”