The robots are coming!
OK, I am sure we are all tired of seeing this type of headline lately, thanks to the so-called AI Wars or certain billionaires claiming a freeze to AI development for six months will be the miracle cure to technological change. Or the grim headlines that, thanks to AI, global workforce reductions should be expected in the next year. The headlines are meant to evoke fear, even doom and gloom, so that organizations can shake out the deadwood from the innovators.
Does this doom and gloom sound familiar? It should!
Such fear spooked the working world in 1993 with the founding of the public Internet, the turn of the century with Y2K, and the beginning of the cloud and blockchain revolution in its various incarnations. Undoubtedly, each technological breakthrough event passed with a few casualties, but generally, more winners emerged thanks to the next great big innovation.
If we look back in time, you’ll realize that innovation doesn’t kill jobs; it changes the landscape. What do I mean by landscape? The way people do their jobs, thanks to the availability of new tools and processes. Technology becomes the boss of one’s destiny, not the other way around. Knowing how to tackle their destiny using these new automation solutions is often a great challenge for workers in our hyper-fast knowledge economy.
People are afraid to adapt to change when introduced to new tools and processes. It’s human nature, no matter where you are in this world. Such resistance to change is the job killer, not the innovation itself.
People will survive if they are willing to embrace technology and process changes. That means making personal investments and sacrifices in their career path as the individual must realize they are their best advocates. Seldom will you find an organization that advocates and invests in people when they know automation can do the job faster and cheaper.
Innovation Requires Human Knowledge, Not the Machine
Let me dispel a myth: for technology to help an organization be innovative, it must be implemented by those who already know how an organization operates.
The people that know the pain points (including the ghosts in the closets) are the ones who are often responsible for the change. They hold institutional knowledge. Suppose you are a knowledge keeper and are willing to join the transformative bandwagon through learning and adaptation of a new solution. In that case, you have the ability to drive the change through an organization. Therefore, for those who embrace change at its core and look past the gloomy headlines, you have far less to worry about because a system is only as good as the knowledge acquired and the people who enforce the processes controlling the destiny of the legacy knowledge.
It’s All About Process and Organizational Change NOT Technology.
Take the example of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. When an organization decides to embark on a journey to implement either enterprise system, a significant financial investment is made. This investment includes those who use the system to help implement processes and procedures to ensure efficiency optimization. Unless you are an organization with a blank slate, stakeholders must be involved with the implementing partner to address process optimization while maintaining the operational status quo. The stakeholders cannot only be IT alone; stakeholders must be the business users themselves.
There will always be the organizational cowboys who believe they can jump straight to the technology and solve everything else later without addressing the people and process problems. Remember that automation requires addressing people, processes, and technology cohesively.
Any organization blindly buying new technologies without understanding the proper fit for their people and processes will not successfully adopt the platform. The only outcome is good money going to waste.
To prove my point, let me dig deeper into the ERP space, specifically emphasizing Federal Government-Centric ERPs (also called Professional Service Automation solutions).
When a small business starts in the federal space, they’ll likely use old-school Microsoft products or QuickBooks Online to manage its finances. It’s inevitable because the barrier to entry is low, and there isn’t a need for sophisticated accounting processes. Managing marketing and the business pipeline is not much different. A semi-sophisticated small business may go beyond using Excel, Access, or SharePoint and potentially use commercial-off-the-shelf cloud solutions such as HubSpot, or Zoho to manage a CRM. This should be adequate for the solopreneur or business that does micro-purchases in the government space. But what is the turning point for the small business requiring them to step up their game? It comes much quicker than you think.
In the case of the Government Consulting world, the key to making that investment is when government clients require you to provide detailed billing statements using a template specifically for them (it isn’t uncommon). If you must bill based on time and materials, and the basis of your reporting must be on a CLIN, that’s a red flag that you’ve outgrown QuickBooks Online or a business productivity solution by Microsoft or Google. When an agency says they have a right to audit your financials to ensure “programmatic integrity,” that is code for you must purchase a Defense Contract Audit Agency-compliant accounting system by vendors including Unanet or Deltek.
Here’s the problem: most small (and even large) government contracting firms don’t realize the need for change until it is overdue. Such a problem is not specific to the Government Contracting enterprise systems segment either; it’s a systemic business problem across all industries, from telecommunications, manufacturing, retail, and distribution.
Visit vendors’ websites such as SAP, Oracle, Microsoft, Workday, Epicor, and Infor. You’ll read about the trials and tribulations of organizations that go from broken legacy systems to a rebirth using cloud-based enterprise solutions. These vendors show how digital transformation using an AI-powered enterprise-class platform (not a tool) is a game changer. The one common theme among virtually all use cases: organizations acquire these systems well after they should have. And their problem often lies mostly in bad data and poorly formulated processes, not necessarily the technology itself.
The Wakeup Call
What is the organizational “wakeup call” to innovate and make people uncomfortable about their job security due to automation?
People often find fault in broken processes or criticize system inefficiencies. Leadership often dismisses such complaints when they are incidental. But when the constant calls for change are coupled with stagnation in business results, leading to slow or no growth, you’ll often see swift action from business leaders. This is often the inflection point when organizational leaders decide if technology can and should replace people.
By this point, though, corrective actions are reactive, not proactive, resulting in more organizational spending than necessary. The often reactive response by leadership starts with the one-off acquisition of a band-aid tool coupled with episodic job cuts to pay for those tools. When that band-aid doesn’t produce results, another tool is acquired until tool fatigue sets in for the remaining workers who carry the institutional knowledge. There does come a point, though when you can’t cut a workforce anymore.
Organizations and leaders must think strategically by avoiding the tool fatigue syndrome, even if business results are not as strong in the short term. The capital cost may be high initially to acquire the best-in-class system and find the right systems integrator, but the results will pay off once implemented. Many often become industry leaders, not laggards.
The Reality of Time and Tool Fatigue
The cost of tool fatigue is real. Tools can’t solve everything; they try to but can’t. Vendors often claim that you’ll be more productive by using a tool. Business leaders must ask: “Says who, based on what evidence, and when can this solve our problem?” In other words, what’s the real value, and is there proof in the proverbial pudding that the “marketing” meets muster? Don’t be afraid to investigate and find out the real value of tools, as automation can get expensive. Automating a process may actually be more cost prohibitive; the human side of the business may, in fact, be cheaper and more cost-efficient than implementing a tool to solve an isolated problem.
Organizations that understand their business architecture (how the business operates) that can marry the technical architecture (the tools that run their business) have a far greater chance of avoiding tool fatigue and reducing the time to operationalize processes. Why? Because the business knows the value of time relative to the tools being implemented.
The old saying “takes money to make money” should be seriously considered even with the so-called AI robots because you get out as much as you put in. If the “engine that could” isn’t being fed the necessary ingredients, including supporting the tool with the right mix of talent, the robots won’t be able to run as you expect.
The Magical Recipe for Automation and AI
For an organization to mature, first look at what’s broken, identify what can and cannot be fixed, and then try to find the best path forward by addressing the business challenge head-on. In other words, address the people and process issues first; the technology problem (and solution) will become abundantly clear once the root of operational issues is addressed.
Organizations looking for a methodology to implement enterprise-class systems such as an ERP, CRM, and HCM that intend to improve processes and introduce AI heavily solutions should look to system integrators or selection firms such as HyerTek® or Panorama Consulting Group to help steer the ship as such organizations can save you time and money. Another reason to bring in a neutral systems integrator or selection firm is to help an organization realize its full technical and human capital potential.
Should The Workforce Be Worried? Not so fast…
Reflecting on history: the Internet brought the fear of doom and gloom to the world thirty years ago that jobs would disappear. Are we OK today? Absolutely. The Internet enabled incredible innovation for all industries, not just the knowledge worker economy. And yes, millions of jobs were created, not lost.
We see in 2023 that the same like-kind fear spooks the economy today, notably that AI and robotics process automation will be the ultimate job killer. It won’t be. This, too, shall pass because you can’t replace institutional knowledge. You can’t replace past performance. You can’t replace business credibility. And you surely can’t replace the human touch with a robotic personality (or lack thereof). These are all assets only a real person, not a robot, can bring to an organization seeking growth and prosperity while also innovating, integrating, and automating operations.