Life beyond automation? Consider the H Factor

Technology is useless without the H Factor to drive it...

Technology is useless without the H Factor to drive it and apply it to business scenarios

I woke up to an interesting piece by Everest’s Peter Bendor Samuel yesterday, where he describes how IT service providers have developed their delivery staff into, essentially, “human robots”. He goes onto say that, while providers have delivered real value serving up these “human robots” to their clients, their staff no longer wish to work in such a robotic fashion.

“With automation, we no longer need human robots. But then what do we do with these people?”… which is where Peter leaves the question hanging.  And that was the biggest takeaway for me – not that operational jobs are gradually being automated away, but what are people going to do next, who didn’t actually want to be human robots in the first place? So let’s cut to the chase… technology is useless without smart humans (the “H Factor”) to apply its potential to real business scenarios

Tackling the H Factor: Today’s human workforce’s challenges in the face of automation

Today, we essentially fall into three categories of worker, with each one roughly a third of today’s workforce:

  1. Millennials.  Yes, that strange, fascinating species we all need to be extremely careful not to upset. Remember, we weren’t born with Snapchat and Instagram embedded into our DNA, and we have to be very cognizant of the fact they need Youtube playing on their machine at all times, while they try to reimagine our procure-to-pay processes. Remember, these kids weren’t introduced into the workplace needing to work for their money. They need to be wrapped in cotton wool and nurtured in an environment with plenty of open spaces, coffee bars, collaboration rooms, movable white boards, a 24×7 gym and a tattoo parlour.  The challenge here, is that while Millennials are, on average, more loyal to their employers than their previous generation, how can they all be aligned with adding real business value in the real world? Do we really need as many Design Thinkers as we used to need coders and process managers?
  2. Baby Boomers. Yes, that motley crew of crusty old farts just hanging on until they get pensioned off. Most want to call it a day, but have expensive lifestyle tastes and can’t afford to – I mean, have you gone to Whole Foods recently? For the Boomers, there is no point changing anything now, as retirement is only a few short years away and they’ve convinced their bosses of the imminent security meltdown, should they tinker with their career defining masterpieces getting their firm’s operations to this fine state of operational performance. I mean, who else can boast a gold watch, simply for showing up to work everyday for the last 30 years?  The challenge here is how to retire this lot, so we can create career progression for the younger generations…
  3. Moomers.  The weird bunch stuck between Millennials and Boomers.  They’re half-terrified they need to be effective using social media, and half-terrified they are going to get automated out of existence, as they aren’t “Digital” enough to break out of their humanesque-robotic existence. They’re trying hard to get to 100 Twitter followers and have got quite adept at posting little essays on LinkedIn, which they think hundreds of people read, when, in fact, noone really got past the headline, with a few sympathetic souls clicking the “like” icon.  They really want to be seen as “Digital Transformers” and made sure they added “Digital” into their job titles (as if “being Digital” was what they aspired to be when they graduated from college).  Little do we suspect they were also previously experts in eBusiness, Web Services, SOA, Cloud, Big Data, and so on… The challenge here, is most these lovely people don’t really have a lot of skills beyond marketing themselves as valuable people, as most the stuff they really do is tactical and highly automatable.

The Bottom-line: Without Social Intelligence, we’re entering an employment apocalypse, unprecedented in history

It’s been seven years since the last economic crash, many businesses are awash with cash, and the desire to make radical changes to drive out costs and automate work is pretty low. However, while the current motivation is low, the capability to outsource, automate and digitize is massive.  One nasty economic nosedive and we’re facing a potential employment armageddon that has no precedence:  millions of jobs will be eliminated, which never again need to be recreated.

And with China struggling to manage its own economy, all hell breaking loose in the Middle East, and this creeping, worrying risk of deflation, we need to be smart about how to prosper in this potentially dark new world, once our enterprises are forced to get much more active about negating their reliance on these increasingly-devaluing, increasingly automatable and digitizable jobs.

People, increasingly, want to work with people they like and people who spark positive energy, first and foremost, as technology continually makes jobs more sophisticated and intelligent. I don’t need an accountant who can tell me my revenues this month, as I have software that can do this for me easily… I need an accountant who can talk me through the nuances of sunsetting a legacy product and its impact on my profit line. I don’t need a lawyer who can create employment contracts – I can pull these off Legal Zoom… I need one who can talk through the nuances of creating incentive plans to motivate my staff. I don’t need a web developper who can integrate a few databases – most of these new websites come with them already native to the package… I need a developper who can help design the sexiest website ever to embarrass my competitors. I don’t need content people who just check the boxes to fill content space – you can get content produced anywhere these days (and even automated)… I need content people who want to exchange ideas on creating content that gets noticed and read by our clients. I don’t need marketing people just to send out email-push campaigns… I need ones who can help me figure out which conferences to go to, how to associate my brand with the right partners, how to use social media more intelligently, how to create communities among my clients etc.  I don’t need someone to manage my insurance claims… I need someone who understands my business and can help me evaluate the ROI of new policies to protect me from unforeseen future scenarios.

I can go on through each profession and business function in turn, but the underlying premise is the same – I need intelligent people I can work with, whether in my company, or in a partner organization. And they don’t need to be rocket-scientist intelligent, just smart enough to understand by business and engage with me to figure out how to do things better. But the value is in the ongoing interaction and team-work, not a wooden worker/manager reporting line model.

So… while I don’t have the definitive answer to all these looming employment catastrophes, what I can do is challenge each of us to figure out the H Factor in all of this:  technology is useless without smart humans to apply its potential to real business scenarios.  We need to be those smart humans who can intelligently apply the tech, not the ones being replaced by it.

Posted in : Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), Design Thinking, Digital Transformation, Homepage, HR Strategy, IT Outsourcing / IT Services, Robotic Process Automation, Security and Risk, Social Networking, Sourcing Best Practises, sourcing-change, Talent in Sourcing, The As-a-Service Economy



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  1. […] Life beyond automation? Consider the H Factor The challenge here, is that while Millennials are, on average, more loyal to their employers than their previous generation, how can they all be aligned with adding real business value in the real world? Do we really need as many Design … They're … Read more on Horses for Sources […]

  2. Firms are too busy converging, and being like everyone else in every way, to want to be different.

    This feeds through to a worker level. Roles aren’t being radically re-cast, and decision-making isn’t being diffused. We are meant to, by now, be working for firms whose workers interact in a loose network, but in truth our firms are more hierarchical than ever. What humans most offer is subjectivity, yet subjectivity is presently regarded as counter-productive.

    When will firms see that being different is worthwhile ? Perhaps many years from now.

  3. Excellent piece, Phil. We need a whole new way of thinking with how we execute our jobs, how we are measured, how we are paid etc. There will be pain, before the gain,

    Chas Mullins

  4. Phil,

    This blog is right on. The need for work is changing as much as the capability of the worker to meet that need. We’re in for an employment bloodbath in the future if people fail to adapt to digital,


  5. @Adrian – completely agree with you. The needs of enterprises are really shifting as technology take care of more of the “data collection and automation”. Peoples’ jobs are increasingly to act on data, not collect it…


  6. Hi Phil,

    Here’s another angle. I gave a talk recently on automation in Human Resources – the interesting thing is that HR really are at the centre of this storm – it requires them to step up and become business’s ‘automation leaders’. Within the department there are lots of tasks that can be automated (natch) and this frees up the clever ones to become true business partners. That means they can do the necessary (and probably painful) task of preparing their organisations’ people, (through re-training, re-deployment, etc), for the onslaught of automation across the whole business. Hopefully they will be up to the job otherwise a lot of businesses will be well and truly screwed.

  7. Phil, interesting blog as an extension to my blog about human robots. I agree with you that technology will never replace humans but will only make humans more effective and productive.

  8. […] Life beyond automation? Consider the H Factor “With automation, we no longer need human robots. But then what do we do with these people?”… which is where Peter leaves the question hanging. And that was the biggest takeaway for me – not that operational jobs are gradually being automated away, … Read more on Horses for Sources […]

  9. Great post, Phil. Reminds me of a pet peeve: I can’t stand hearing “that’s how we’ve always done it.” Things change, technology evolves and humans don’t seem to want to. In general, as a Billenial (I agree with Jay, Moomer is not attractive), I embrace change, want to understand how to leverage it to my and my employer’s/clients’ best interests and strive to be that business partner who talk about who can make thoughtful, strategic suggestions. I believe it’s the H that is the differentiator and that will keep me employed for years to come!

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