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Change management is critical to optimizing a digital workforce

In part two of his Ask the Expert discussion of working alongside chatbots, cobots and AI, IBM's Gene Chao focuses on the importance of change management.

Editor's note: This is the second part of an Ask the Expert Q&A featuring Gene Chao, global vice president and general manager of IBM Automation, on the topic of workplace automation. In part one, Chao sorted out how chatbots, cobots and AI automation figure into the emerging digital workforce. Here, he drills down into why change management is important for optimizing this complex digital workforce. One observation: The workplace marriage of humans and bots is more likely to succeed when employees feel they're in charge.

What has been the early response in working alongside bots?

Gene Chao: Whether it's a virtual accountant or a cobot on the manufacturing floor, when a human being is the driver [in the process itself], adoption is great. When the human being is the leading entity, the adoption rate goes faster and deeper.

However, when the technology is leading [the process] and the human being is in the support function -- when we've moved from a world where people are in charge to a place where humans are not necessarily out front -- there is more resistance and lower rates of adoption.

The initial early adopters treated it very much like a tool or an interesting technology thing. It was viewed as a bolt-on vs. 'I need to consider how the work happens.'

A lot of companies are investing in artificial intelligence and robotic process automation, but they decide not to address change on a human integration level. So, the failure rate in those cases is high. That's why one of our biggest points has been around adoption and change management of the technology.

Folks that are adopting the technology through a lessons-learned lens are first redefining how the work is done. They're rebalancing what people do and what systems do. Those environments have gotten many more dividends, and the return on investment is multiples higher.

Millennials quick to assimilate in digital workforce

How should companies approach change management when introducing bots and similar technology into work processes?

Gene ChaoGene Chao

Chao: It's one of the hardest components of adoption planning. We subscribe to a process called design thinking. We want the design principal -- the people who have authoring rights -- to help make decisions and shape it. We want to find those change agents who will be the shepherds. There will always be that person who won't want any part of it; they may be a third of the people. But when you find change agents and you involve them early, you can stop that third from being a half or more. That happens through the design thinking process.

This sounds like conventional change management tactics.

Chao: To some degree, yes. It's early involvement and often involvement. The worse thing to happen is have management tell you this is happening and that's it. You want to involve people, show them the benefits, get them retrained. That's the difference between just getting someone comfortable doing something different and getting them reskilled so they're part of the new generation of workers. The millennials have been fantastic in adoption. They have an openness to how technology lands in their general life or how it's integrated into how they live. They're not stuck in siloes, thinking, 'This is my job, that's your job.'

Human mindset vs. rules-driven IT

Once workers are reskilled for this hybrid digital workforce, what do work interactions actually look like?

Chao: We see three main principles of these interactions: 1) augmented and automated tasks/activities; 2) autonomous processes and workflows; and 3) AI-driven judgment/decision-making.

The first two parts are easily imagined with a 'digital co-worker' and 'bot' type of resource unit. The last one is typically a tool and/or intelligent analysis that has a series of recommendations/scenarios/probabilities.

The most interesting advancements have been the integration across the three segments that have moved static workflows/processes into dynamic ones. Workflow and task/activity management is classically sequential and routinized, meaning the path to resolution is deterministic. A good example is an IT system or technology incident resolution; the means to identify root cause follows a step-by-step process -- the IT runbook.

The modern -- or dynamic -- workflow is now nondeterministic and situationally aware. Autonomic IT service management will find the fastest path to resolve and bypass unnecessary steps. This new intelligent workflow lens will become the cornerstone of AI adoption into industry-specific operating environments.

How should individual workers in this emerging digital workforce think about having bots as colleagues?

The balancing act is: How do you take that human mindset that can think on the fly and that IT mindset that's rigid and get them to work together?
Gene ChaoGlobal VP, IBM Automation

Chao: There's a different balance between working as a human and working as a machine. A machine follows rules, and although AI can create a dynamic workflow, human beings can make adjustments on the fly.

So, the balancing act is: How do you take that human mindset that can think on the fly and that IT mindset that's rigid and get them to work together? Working with bots, you have to understand how to marry those two worlds together.

How do companies marry those two worlds together?

Chao: It has to start with at least a cursory understanding of what the technology capabilities are. Then, it becomes [figuring out] a complex set of answers whereby the new environments will require specific governance and control points.

We've all become familiar with onshore and offshore labor arbitrage. The third leg of the stool is now evident with the digital workforce. Specifically, it's the software-based labor opportunity. There are new process/workflow design principles that underpin the 'marriage.' Additionally, there needs to be clarity across the digital software workforce and the digitally skilled people.

What is the role CIOs play in getting humans and bots to work well together?

Chao: CIOs need to be able to articulate why you need to adopt this technology into your job or your function. CIOs can talk about cost savings, about cloud, but if CIOs just do that, why would a worker want this [technology]? CIOs need to talk about how this technology will change how work gets done. So, every CIO needs to be conversant in that. To do that, CIOs need to have a fair chunk of their capabilities in the business function or the functional roles in the business units.

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