Automation and Artificial Intelligence: The Central Question For Future Leaders

We have reached a point in our technological innovation timeline where, for the first time, the vision of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) as coworker has moved from “one day” to “today.” And for the future leaders among us, there is a central question that needs to be answered during this time of transition.

The central question is not about the rollout of the transition from analog to digital. McDonalds moving from people who take orders to kiosks that take orders is only a matter of getting the kiosks made, installed, programmed, and then integrated with the store’s business operations. Hard to do? Yes, but this is shiny object stuff when it comes to automation and AI. As you know, shiny objects are like certain types of food – tastes good but doesn’t stick around long.

The central question is about the appropriate role of automation and AI in the workplace. Imagine if it were possible to automate each and every job to perfection in an organization. In this hypothetical organization, there is no need for humans only machines and algorithms. The question here is, if it were indeed possible to automate everything, what should we automate and what should remain in the domain of people?

This seems like a simple question but it is like peeling back a human head sized onion. The more layers you peel back, the more layers you realize need to be peeled back.

This question comes up because right now many organizations are attempting to mess with the¬†fulcrum under the long beam that has human labor on one end and machine labor on the other. From an article on Recode, collaborative robots (cobots) are expected to “account for 34 percent of the industrial robots sold by 2025.” More machines and more AI will be used in future organizations working alongside or in place of humans.

This ongoing transition gives the masses plenty of shiny objects to distract our attention, but also works to add credibility to the few future leaders who are getting serious about answering the central question. Better to deal with the monster when the monster is a baby, than when it is fully grown (hat tip to Tony Robbins on that saying). Similarly, it is much easier to answer the central question for your organization now then it will be in the years ahead.

Future leaders will need to be more discerning about the role of automation and AI in the organization than previous leaders were. After all, the main goal of introducing any technology into an organization is to increase productivity. But all productivity gains need to be examined through the lens of the organization’s mission. The mission (I hope) isn’t to drive marginal costs as close to zero as possible for whatever product or service you offer.

Automation and AI is great at productivity, but, at least for the time being, is completely worthless at creating or executing on the “why” of an organization. Shiny object syndrome tends to take our gaze off the “why” in favor of the “what” and that is a recipe for the future organization to eventually go extinct.

Question: How do you evaluate new technology either for use in your organization, or for your personal use?


by Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan is the Head Coach at Sandcastle Company, a Seattle-based leadership training organization. His first book, Future Leader: Rebooting Leadership to Win the Millennial and Tech Future [link], is now available. Jonathan regularly writes and speaks about The New Leader Way, leadership resilience, and the future of work. He has years of leadership experience in both the public and private sectors, a master's degree from Seattle University, and professional coach training from the University of Miami.

Filed under: Future Leader

Published on September 30, 2017

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