Want to survive the AI era? YOU have a simple choice to make...

July 07, 2019 | Phil Fersht

When it comes to staying relevant in today's workforce, let’s get to the heart of the matter – YOU have a simple choice to make:

  • Do nothing and be part of the “Frozen Middle”. Decide you can’t be bothered to learn anything new, so make sure your firm has the same attitude (or has a thin veneer of innovation masking a cesspool of lethargy and love of perpetuating legacy processes and business practices). And ride this next wave of hype out for a few years before you can quietly ride off into a comfortable sunset, or…
  • Become a change-driver. Decide you have to get ahead of emerging technologies and their massive impact on business ecosystems and make sure your firm has what it takes to sponsor your burning ambition to drive cultural changes, new learning and ability to rethink how business processes and practices are wired.

Once you decide which of these two categories which you wish to belong, then make sure you’re in the right company to execute your survival plan… otherwise, leave and find one that is.

Because the data from the recent World Economic Forum jobs study shows half of enterprises are being held back because their staff fails to understand the disruptive changes in their industry, and an alarming 37% of enterprise leaders do not feel their current workforce is aligned to their innovation strategy:

There are no half-measures here, folks - you can’t dip in and out when it comes to driving automation and AI solutions – people are quickly getting found out for having a veneer of understanding.  Either you decide to focus on really understanding how to apply these solutions to your business, or decide you can’t be bothered and focus on maintaining the old way of keeping your business’s operations lights on.

Assuming more people who visit this lovely blog are in category (2), then let’s review what we can do to actually become an AI change-driver….

Saving our jobs when they become "AI-able"

So the automation/AI marketing spiel is firmly espousing that our jobs will be so much richer when we offload as many of our “operational” activities to RPA loops and self-learning algorithms. Isn’t it so cool that all these new un-computerizable activities will just magically appear to fill our job voids to make our lives so much more enriched and fulfilling? 

The truth is that people will only truly buy-in to AI and automation when they are secure enough to hand off a lot of the tasks they currently do, with the transition to the new work already in place to maintain their relevance and value to their employer.

Let’s identify how to learn the new stuff so we can offload the AI-able activities

Let’s be direct – in today’s swirl of constant shiny new things, it's becoming overwhelming for many of us who got by on a traditional education and an ability to deliver routine tasks, handle the usual game of corporate politics and command an ability to “know enough to be dangerous” to stay relevant to our colleagues and management. 

Sadly, everyone is now being scrutinized whether they have certain “skills” that will make them worthy of employment as more and more of their job can be replaced by algorithms and automation loops.  So let’s take a look at these skills that came top in the recent World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report, where 100 of the leading firms within each industry were interviewed:

  • Cognitive Flexibility. The ability to generate or use different sets of rules for combining or grouping things in different ways.

So this means you need to know your audience and adapt your ideas to suit their needs. You can’t just repeat the same things to everyone – you need to be great at listening and communicating, so you can pull together common threads and continually adapt.  Plus, people need to know you listen to them – there’s nothing worse than being that old windbag who just spouts off the same old guff because they love the sound of their voice.  For example, if you are convincing your HR head about your firm investing in an AI platform, they are likely to focus on the ethics and regulatory/data privacy issues.  Your CFO, on the other hand, will probably want to focus more on the cost/benefit and ease of use. Your CIO will want to understand why your firm can’t use existing tools they already have invested in. There are three sets of conversations you need to find common threads across if you are going to get a consensus to invest. 

  • Creativity. The ability to come up with unusual or clever ideas about a given topic or situation, or to develop creative ways to solve a problem.

Creativity is so important, especially in markets where differentiation points are wafer-thin.  Take our beloved IT services providers, for example.  Most of them today are offering an identical solution and their pricing is usually similar, and each of them can churn our analyst reports which portray them as the best.  Big fancy business terms, cardboard stories of transformation won’t cut it anymore…  So the differentiation is increasingly shifting to “who do you want to work with” at a people level, so the onus must shift to really listening and understanding your client needs and proving to them you really get them.  Hence, creativity and emotional intelligence are so closely aligned here.

  • Problem Sensitivity. The ability to tell when something is wrong or is likely to go wrong. It does not involve solving the problem, only recognizing there is a problem.

My least favorite phrase these days is “fail fast”, as this is usually a term people use in hindsight after they screwed up.  But in fast-moving industries such as consumer goods or online travel, it is often not critical is you launched a poorly thought-out product or service.  In slow-moving industries, such as process manufacturing, a poor decision could affect a single process that takes years to get right, and could be fatal (hence “fail fast” only works in pilot phases, not in real business).  For example, your firm could be launching a recruiting campaign that you realize could be accused of discriminating candidates by age or gender, which would have been par for the course a couple of years ago.  You realize this could have serious implications for your firm in today’s hyper-sensitive data privacy environment, and alert you management asap to change course.  You may not have the solution, but you were sensitive to the problem.  Here, your ability to think laterally and other variables is so important.

  • Monitoring Self and Others. Monitoring/assessing performance of yourself, other individuals or organizations to make improvements or take corrective action.

The ability to assess performance for your firm - and pinpoint improvements - is incredibly valuable to your management. As the WEF data emphasizes, two-thirds of financial services firms (for example) see an insufficient understanding of disruptive changes as a significant barrier to change.  At the same time, half of them see a poor alignment between their workforce strategies and their firms' innovation strategies.  This indicates that staff who can pinpoint how to test their own understanding of the changes within their industries, and also the awareness of their colleagues, and then suggest ways to work together as teams to train themselves how to close these knowledge gaps, will be highly appreciated. 

So if you work in a traditional bank, for example, and you recognize several digital startup banks that could really hurt your business as they target millennials who are prepared to switch banks because they have a better app experience, you need to make sure you are ahead of the game and your team is also.  Being able to bring in experts to educate you and your team, or forge enlightening discussions with disruptive startups willing to share their business model ideas are great examples of how you can be a great performance evaluator. This is where we see a lot of cognitive flexibility and creativity aligned with emotional intelligence – and a willingness to put your ego to one side.

The Bottom-Line: When times are good is the time to hone your skills and get ready for when times get tough.  You have an amazing opportunity to rise to the change, so please don't waste it

Remember all the discussion about the carnage automation and AI were going to bring to the market place?  Forrester claimed 1 million US B2B sales jobs will go away by 2020; Gartner predicted one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025; an Oxford University Study claimed about 47 percent of total US employment is at risk; Stephen Hawking (may he rest in peace) warned us that AI would be the biggest - and possibly the last - event in human history. At HFS, we have bleak predictions too about the future of job as most modern ambitious companies are simply stopping creating the jobs we're doing today, and refocuses on the additive needs they have in the future, that technology cannot deliver them.

The simple truth is that change that necessitates the fundamental retraining and learning of new ways of working, new attitudes and collaborative cultures is much slower moving that analysts, academics and pundits can predict.  Merely slamming in new tech kit and expecting change to happen is the ultimate recipe for failure in today's market. Remember it took enterprises two decades to adapt to ERP solutions (many still are)... it even took accountants a decade to adapt from Lotus 1-2-3 to Excel.  Why would we expect today's business and IT professionals to adapt much faster to new tools and solutions that actually require real training - and all that coupled with making real changes to processes that have been operating exactly the same way as they did 20/30/40 years ago, with the only “innovation” being models like offshore outsourcing and shared service centers, cloud and digital technologies enabling those same processes to be conducted steadily faster and cheaper?  Let's be honest, most companies still operate with their major functions such as customer service, marketing, finance, HR and supply chain operating in individual silos, with IT operating as a non-strategic vehicle to maintain the status quo and keep the lights on.

Coupled with the pain and pace of change and the lethargy of enterprises to do anything fundamentally different, is the fact that it's been over a decade since we experience a real economic downturn.  We're operating at a time where it's challenging for firms even to populate the call centers and find junior staff willing to perform mundane routine activities.  And talk to any C-Suite executive and they will tell you finding leadership talent and managers with "transformational" skills is nigh-on impossible - and incredibly expensive.

We are lucky to live at a time where we have a multitude of established and emerging change agents at our disposal: global sourcing, Design Thinking, Robotic Transformation Software, AI, Analytics, IoT, blockchain among others. So use this time to learn-up and take advantage of the demand for talent, as one day the climate isn't going to be so rosy for talent, and jobs that can be automated / AI-ed will never resurface.  The time to challenge yourself and make this crucial choice is now, please don't sit on the fence and wait until it's too late.

Posted in: Digital OneOfficeGlobal Workforce and Talent

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1 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Sudheer
    Posted Jul 07, 2019 05:32 PM | Permalink Reply

    Great article Phil. Some really good points for the modern executive to ponder on.

    To make a broader impact, leaders in SSO sector should truly empower their digitally adept Gen Z employee base to start letting their creativity wild with the modern digital tools, almost like LEGO bricks.

    Fostering a culture of innovation with a digitally empowered workforce is the easiest path to the top of the digital enterprise pinnacle.

    Sudheer

  2. Jeff Frazer
    Posted Jul 08, 2019 10:16 AM | Permalink Reply

    This is a very good article. I have a client currently embarking on Intelligent Automaton and they have jumped in with both feet! They are training close to 15 people and have a mandate to transform that is driven right from the top. Those that may think their jobs are in jeopardy are also fully embracing the transformation. I say good for them! It is truly amazing to see!

  3. Miranda Mickelson
    Posted Jul 08, 2019 03:09 AM | Permalink Reply

    Phil Fersht you speak a great truth, again!

  4. Paul Denham
    Posted Jul 09, 2019 09:21 AM | Permalink Reply

    A great article – telling it like it is. Thanks Phil.

  5. Colin Coleman
    Posted Jul 09, 2019 01:19 AM | Permalink Reply

    Thanks Phil. I believe it comes down to "risk appetite and personality". Thinking of 50 years ago how many would say yes to entering a metal can, strapped to a very large explosive, travel hundreds of thousands of miles, get in an even smaller can and then when all that has been done, face the prospect of being a fireball...

    CC

  6. Paul Smith
    Posted Jul 09, 2019 09:30 AM | Permalink Reply

    Excellent piece Phil - so refereshing to read insights from an analyst who takes time to share his experiences and views. I agree we're reaching decision time for so many people,

    Paul

  7. Debra Polishook
    Posted Jul 10, 2019 10:05 AM | Permalink Reply

    Thought provoking blog and confirms what the Greek Philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus said "Change is the only Constant"! I have chosen to lead in the AI era and encourage other "boomers", "GenXers" and beyond to do the same! What will you do?

  8. Thuso
    Posted Jul 10, 2019 06:58 AM | Permalink Reply

    A great article. Thank you Phil.

  9. Jon Armstrong
    Posted Jul 10, 2019 11:30 AM | Permalink Reply

    Like! Really enjoyed this Phil. I recently left the job where we met to have the freedom to innovate and pursue the possibilities offered by these shifts.

    Jon

  10. Alpar Toth
    Posted Jul 30, 2019 11:20 AM | Permalink Reply

    Hi Phil, I was considering to take a degree in AI and Machine Learning. Any recommendations? Cheers, Alpar

  11. Phil Fersht
    Posted Jul 31, 2019 04:34 AM | Permalink Reply

    @Alpar - MIT is the most active here, but Stanford also. also worth exploring some of these specialist nano degrees we're seeing a lot more of these days. happy to discuss. PF

  12. Dimitris Papageorgiou
    Posted Jul 31, 2019 04:35 AM | Permalink Reply

    A potential 3rd and possibly worst option, which is unfortunately seen too often: Do something with vague scope, limited resources and no executive sponsorship for a programmatic approach, focused on cost reductions.

  13. Phil Fersht
    Posted Jul 31, 2019 04:38 AM | Permalink Reply

    @Dmitris - and that can work to get the ball rolling... nothing resonates more than demonstrating cost take-out. The "hours given back to the business" has worked well too as a measure, but I fear too many execs are over-obsessing with that now and people are getting a bit cynical about vague ROIs... PF

  14. Nasif
    Posted Jul 29, 2019 12:40 AM | Permalink Reply

    Very insightful. But what do you think small businesses should do? Apart from adopting cloud early, what steps should they take in order to make them 'automation-ready' OR the change drivers?

  15. Phil Fersht
    Posted Jul 31, 2019 05:03 AM | Permalink Reply

    @Naseef - most small businesses have the advantage of not being beset by retrofitting automation into legacy systems and processes. automation should be quite native using environments where hubspot/salesforce etc are more the "system of record". i.e. most workflows can be API-ed using modern apps. I think folks in small business need to focus more on leveraging AI and cognitive assistants into the customer-facing functions... it's a different ball game. You do worry about some clunky dinosaur firms who just can't get to anything like an agile operating model... PF

  16. Gus Bekdash
    Posted Jul 30, 2019 05:09 AM | Permalink Reply

    @Naseef - most small businesses have the advantage of not being beset by retrofitting automation into legacy systems and processes. automation should be quite native using environments where hubspot/salesforce etc are more the "system of record". i.e. most workflows can be API-ed using modern apps. I think folks in small business need to focus more on leveraging AI and cognitive assistants into the customer-facing functions... it's a different ball game. You do worry about some clunky dinosaur firms who just can't get to anything like an agile operating model... PF

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