The Man and the Machine and the impact on the Future of Work

Many people wonder the reasoning of Microsoft’s [1] mission which is: “Empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more” . It can sound a cliché, but I could never be more important to reinforce the message, once we are coming out of repetitive work and normalization of processes, which are step by step being totally automated – by the use of technologies like robotic process automation – shifting to the knowledge work space.
I’ve seen based on my experience working with Oil & Gas companies, that the idea of an industry that monolithically crystalized is not a reality anymore. This type of industry sector is being enabled by a set of technologies that took time to mature, combined with challenges related with network infrastructure availability and latency (oil production occur in remote areas of in the middle of the ocean where connectivity is a scarce resource), but today are becoming mainstream. For example using drones to make inspections, mixed reality for executing field inspections, collaboration remotely with engineers in the control center or using cameras for detecting safety (lack of protection equipment) or security (facility intrusion) with image pattern recognition. These new technologies  are also creating a job and career change  widened by the adoption of new technologies and talent scarcity. Two reports from World Economic Forum, named, Towards a Reskilling Revolution and Future of Jobs, highlight:
Companies, “expect to hire wholly new permanent staff already possessing skills relevant to new technologies; seek to automate the work tasks concerned completely; and retrain existing employees. The likelihood of hiring new permanent staff with relevant skills is nearly twice the likelihood of strategic redundancies of staff lagging behind in new skills adoption. However, nearly a quarter of companies are undecided or unlikely to pursue the retraining of existing employees, and two-thirds expect workers to adapt and pick up skills in the course of their changing jobs. Between one-half and two-thirds are likely to turn to external contractors, temporary staff and freelancers to address their skills gaps.”

I was invited as a speaker to the Halliburton Life conference in Abu Dhabi. One of the trends I noticed – as part of the reinforcement on how intrusive artificial intelligence is enabling a new set of possibilities, like for example, improving decision making in terms of financial impact while making seismic data interpretation in terms of addressing exploration and production viability – is how hard is for individuals with strong domain expertise to work. I heard during sessions people expressing frustration on manipulation data sets, being not able to work of the same updated version of a data set, becoming unproductive waiting weeks for results and deal with uncertainty.

I am having a series of meetings with HR function and I’ve been told that the way people work is becoming frustrating and unproductive, despite all ubiquity of cloud, social, bring your own software / device or putting into a different perspective, it is not achieving the expected results. There was definitively productivity improvements, mostly in terms of mobility, meaning individuals can work anywhere at their pace, have access to information they commonly use on every day. However, mirroring self-expression, self-development (be digital ready), achieving a true networked work environment – far from being reached, companies with workforce size higher than 5.000 individuals find how difficult it is to reach out experts, knowing what is happening across domain of expertise which people operate, be part of working groups to construct new identities to replace old ones, avoiding to become redundant as a way of personal fulfilment – and ultimately, how technology ubiquity is bringing lack of integration, distraction shifting our attention on meaningful activities. As an example, people envision a future which individuals participate in a meeting, don’t need to search for meeting content in “teams workspace”, don’t need to connect to a projector, don’t need to write meeting notes, spark and track action items.

Studies carried in an Oil & Gas major using Microsoft’s workplace analytics reveal that in an investment venture appraisal that took 1 year to complete, more than 2.000 individuals were involved with a strong presence of financial departments. As a result, this contributes to:
  • Slow decision making and limited agility;
  • Employees being over-managed;
  • It was possible to gain more than 300 FTEs worth of time by rethinking how work and management is distributed;
  • Cross-functional processes becoming bloated and expensive.
People aspire a future which individuals participate in a meeting, don’t need to search for meeting content in “teams workspace”, don’t need to connect to a projector, don’t need to write meeting notes, spark and track action items. This is not a futurist idea. This a desirable outcome.


3 pillars of Human Led Design
To address this, it is necessary to rethink how technology should pursue a human led design strategy:

  • Help people achieve what is important to them. This something that during all the years companies have worked in operational improvement did not fully deliver. For example, can’t we let people organize and define their own User Interface in a way they will focus on what is really most important to them?
  • Building relationships. There is an intense debate on methods to discover how to get to know individuals and understand their real needs and wants based on trust, re-quoting Elizabeth Tunstall that provides an interesting perspective, as our universal individuality is cannot separated by the sacred, profane and spirituality, instead of creating personas framed on a stereotypes which we must be forced to fit.
  • Design technology that seamlessly integrates into the human world. Design for the capabilities and limitations of the human body. Adjust to the human needs dictated by the physical conditions of an environment or device. For example, designing an application to be operated in an explosive and noisy environment is different for designing the same solution to be operated in a control center.
Future of Work scenarios
The future of work is deeply related with employee upskilling and retainment. Being able to make the change in terms of employee experience will contribute to retain talent for next generation of workers.
Below is a spectrum of possible scenarios to explore in terms of what the future of work can be.
Some are more easy to productize, other’s, like augmented knowledge reasoning aren’t, but it is still worth trying – I remember previous engagements related with public policy enactment as an example – i.e. government agency wants to increase taxes and wants to recommend a scenario that is going to maximize tax collection and minimize negative population sentiment, using A.I. for that purpose.

Collection of Future of Work Scenarios

In summary, guiding principle is focusing less on jobs descriptions and more on the nature of the work produced and then determining how to help employees accomplish those tasks enabled by scenarios like these:
  • Digital assistants may include a digital shadow that will observe behaviors, build and maintain work preference rules, search information, predict and remind you about important actions to accomplish based on the nature of the work you are working on.
  • Unified interactions allows employees to take actions on tasks, gain access to the data feeds they follow, collaborate with other individuals, all without ever leaving a single customized interface according his needs and wants, instead of jump from application to application.
  • Digital upskilling is about training the workforce, with content hyper-personalization based on a role definition execution requisites and performance review feedback. In a world that is becoming digital, the workforce is must be digital ready instead of digital impaired.
  • Collaboration (at large) as a digital extension of individuals senses, contextual knowledge support it serves as an interface for humans to the physical world. Enhance the user’s surroundings with relevant, and/or actionable information, using as an example, mixed reality to augment our ability to perform.
  • Reasoning leveraged on recommendation agents based on past interactions and other sources of information to jump-start and kick-off knowledge-oriented activities. Incorporate specialized Artificial Intelligence technologies processing functions tuned specifically to answer questions, create models, to support decision making.

You can’t optimize for everyone, but it is worth making a profound change happen in our working habits this will help organizations that they cannot digitally transform unless people do.

[1] I am Microsoft employee when this post was written.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s