At no time in history, outside of perhaps the industrial revolution, have the challenges related to work been as significant as they are today. And although the industrial revolution and the information age both saw the development of productivity-enhancing capabilities, today’s reality is that business operates 24×7 for virtually all job functions. Because of this, and largely due to the technology available today, individual workers are constantly on the clock with an expectation that the work at hand will be completed, whether it happens to be during or after “normal” business hours.
Think about your own job. Do you feel as if you have an appropriate level of balance between work and your personal life? Is there even a separation between the two? Do you find yourself continually checking mail and other messages after regular business hours? How frequently do you engage in work-related activities in what would be considered off hours? Do you feel under considerable pressure to get things done? Do you feel stress when waiting on someone else to deliver something you need?
The majority of workers can appreciate the questions above and, truth be told, would admit that they often find it challenging to meet the demands associated with today’s 24×7 business culture.
Affirming today’s reality, Grand Canyon University conducted a recent survey of 600 business professionals to gain a better understanding of today’s business culture. Among the more interesting statistics, the survey revealed that 63.3% of business professionals work more than five hours on the weekend. The survey also revealed that over 50% had to sacrifice time off due to work and, not surprisingly, nearly 50% claimed relationships with family and friends have suffered as a result of poor work-life balance.
But what about technology? Surely technology has had some positive impact, right? After all, wasn’t technology supposed to provide us with more free time? There is little debate that technology has played a significant role in helping businesses of all shapes and sizes drive greater productivity. Frankly, it would not be possible for businesses and individuals to accomplish what they do if not for the information and communications technology utilized in most businesses today.
A look back a generation or two is all we need to make this point. During the early stages of my father’s career, “work” typically ended around 6 p.m. Upon arriving home there was dinner, maybe a few games and then the ballgame. On occasion, he might receive a phone call on our home phone because there was some emergency, but other than the random telephone call, there was no email to check, no electronic systems to access, no video conferences, no electronic reports or data to analyze and very limited capabilities to drive work activities without actually being at work. Was there some work at home? Yes, but compared to what we do today it was a minuscule amount.
Technology, you see, is a double-edged sword, helping us move forward but also keeping us connected to work at all times. Additionally, even with all of today’s technology available, workers continue to be mired in activities that are manual in nature. Why do we still have personnel in our organizations keying data into systems? Why do so many workflows continue to rely upon paper as a key ingredient to drive process?
What is the value of technology if it helps us work more but doesn’t free us to drive greater value?
If some form of artificial intelligence and machine learning was implemented into a business process highly dependent on paper, and that technology could help automate the capture of information and subsequent document processing, is that gain in efficiency an outcome? Many would agree that it is. Without a doubt, it would be an improvement over having a human reviewing each document to identify relevant information and then keying the information into another system in order for the process to move forward.
However, the outcome here is not the efficiency improvement. The efficiency improvement is a benefit, but the business outcome is what that improved efficiency can deliver. Maybe it provides a business with an ability to pay its bills faster, and in doing so, qualify for cash discounts. Maybe it helps a business to automatically detect fraud and thereby lessen business losses. Perhaps it drives new customer onboarding, delivering more rapid revenue capture.
All of these examples are business outcomes delivered by the efficiency benefit gained from technology implementation. Although these outcomes are significant, we may have missed the most significant outcome of them all: worker emancipation.
What is worker emancipation? We have amazing technology in today’s business world that is improving on a daily basis. Yet, we still have workers in virtually all job functions mired in non-productive work tasks and processes, many of which are ripe for automation. If we could free today’s worker from the mundane — in essence, emancipate them — what would that mean for our businesses or for the workers themselves?
Before we answer these questions, we need to consider whether emancipation is really possible. After all, we’ve reached a point in time where even with advanced technology, job tedium still exists. Is there technology available today or on the horizon that holds the key to worker freedom?
Artificial intelligence, if you can believe it, has been around since the 1950s, with Arthur Samuels developing the first “learning” checkers-playing computer game. As the decade progressed, additional advances were made, a number of machine learning examples developed, and artificial intelligence got its formal name.
So, if artificial intelligence and machine learning have been around since the 1950s, why has it taken so long for this technology to be implemented for practical use cases? The reasons are quite simple and include computing power, algorithms and data. Although artificial intelligence has a long history, it has not been until recent times that computing power and algorithms have advanced to a level where datasets can be processed to provide meaningful pattern recognition and learning opportunities. So many of today’s artificial intelligence-oriented applications are based upon machine learning capabilities that improve in accuracy as more data is processed and as corrections are made to erroneous results. With the computing power available today — particularly distributed computing power in the cloud — there is more than enough horsepower available to crunch the data so vital to AI application accuracy. In addition, while early AI application installations often struggled given a lack of viable training data, this is also changing, with many AI-based applications benefiting from public data pools and new training methods. The result is that we are now on the precipice of seeing AI-based application software become pervasive across enterprises and for these programs to provide meaningful benefits from the time of initial installation — benefits that should only improve with ongoing utilization.
Where is this headed, you might wonder? If trends are any indicator, we would expect to see businesses both large and small accelerate their implementation of AI-based application software across their enterprises and in particular, within business processes that tend to be highly manual and/or paper-intensive. Think accounts payable, human resources, customer onboarding, loan processing, insurance claims, or anything government, and you’ll immediately get a sense where AI-based applications will make their biggest mark.
An IDC survey of more than 2,000 IT and line of business decision makers showed growing adoption of AI worldwide, and that early adopters reported an improvement of almost 25% percent in customer experience. They also reported accelerated innovation, more competitiveness, higher margins, and better employee experiences.
This shows that while many businesses will view AI-based application deployment as a means of driving expense reduction for profit improvement, others will utilize this technology as a means of driving competitive advantage, particularly against those competitors who are slow to act. Their results will be more dramatic.
And what of workers in this new world? As mentioned previously, technology in general, and AI in particular, can bring many benefits to businesses and drive important business outcomes. Will AI displace workers as processes achieve greater levels of automation? Like any technology, it is highly likely that AI in all its iterations will drive worker displacement. It may turn out that you just don’t need as many people entering data as was required in the past. While this is one likely outcome, a larger question remains concerning how many new roles AI will ultimately create.
Yes, artificial intelligence is poised to be one of the more important technologies to impact business. It will drive sweeping changes to how business processes flow and the role that humans play in such processes. Years from now, when the story of AI is told, we will recount how AI helped individuals manage their personal lives by taking over many of today’s tasks. We’ll learn about a technology that helped businesses move faster and made them more productive. And yes, we’ll learn that AI helped to emancipate workers from the tedium of many jobs, permitting them to use their minds and creativity to deliver innovative value, the greatest business outcome of all.