Charles Towers-Clarke, CEO of online platform PodGroup discusses how artificial intelligence can help empower employees rather than replace them.
The opportunity that AI presents is too large for businesses to ignore, that much is clear, but the narratives around it so far have been clouded by fear or idealism (and sometimes both). The idea that most of our jobs can be automated by AI is correct, this is not the first time we have had to analyse the future of jobs, but it certainly isn’t the end of human work.
Ever since people have been inventing new technologies our work has been getting easier – from the rope and pulley all the way to the machines that replaced human ‘computers’ at NASA in the 1960’s. Each time we have stepped up to a new level of productivity, a whole host of jobs have been created based on that new base level, pushing us into more thought-based work rather than manual work.
In order to embrace the change that AI will bring, we need to change the way we work to open up a new range of jobs and skills based on everything AI can’t handle – everything that makes us human.
Testing the limits
Most AI at the moment is based on a technique called backpropagation. This means that the AI programme fills its knowledge base from past experiences, so that it can complete the same tasks faster each time. But it also has to start from scratch if you ask it to pick up a bottle instead of a cup. This limitation is something that indicates AI will never quite achieve the kind of abstract thought and generalisation that we are capable of, and so the parts of our jobs that need those skills will remain safe.
An AI programme can complete any process faster than any of us, so we need to move away from working in a process-driven manner. From primary school and up we are taught to specialise, and become an expert in a field by repetition and perfection of a craft. This is exactly what AI will be able to do in twenty minutes, with access to data including 26 million medical papers (Medline), the entire digitised history of law, and the code that built itself.
Where AI will be stumped is in the real-world application of that information. Caregiving, arguing a case in court, writing test code, and a thousand other human skills that AI can’t turn into a set of measurable steps. This is why we need to focus on these attributes and build a new way of working that can grow alongside AI and the technological revolution.
The traditional way of working creates a process-driven workforce that can become removed from the bigger picture. In my company, Pod Group, we changed our organisational structure to move away from this mindset, and emphasize the attributes that will help businesses grow in future.
Our WEIRD strategy is built around the attributes of Wisdom, Emotional Intelligence, Initiative, Responsibility and Development, and sets out to have everyone take ownership of their own actions, and feel confident about this ownership. With the assumption that everyone is capable, that we should enjoy our time at work, and that value is created by maximising what we can do collectively, lots of interesting things happen.
Oddly enough, if you let people choose how to do their work, they actually want to do it. Because we should enjoy working, people can choose where they work, and when to take a holiday. Because all information about the company is transparent and available – including salaries decided by each individual – every project can be completed knowing all of the relevant information, including costs and returns.
Creating an environment where employees are free and encouraged to make their own decisions (about their work, pertinent financial decisions, and the future of their company), allows a sense of personal ownership and leadership to develop. Work then becomes focused on the ongoing productivity of the company, not the task at hand, and a workplace able to embrace AI is born.
Opening up to change
Many people love the startup environment, where everybody knows what’s going on and has a good grasp of where each task fits into the whole. As a company scales, there is a natural tendency to portion up the business into departments, creating silos of information with poor communication in between.
Giving employees the same responsibility that they would have in a startup does not lead to things slipping through the cracks as a company expands. On the contrary, people actively seek out advice to avoid blockages, employees engage with the company’s financial progress, and innovation comes directly from the frontline – which is a fantastic strategy for growth.
The world is too complex to handle within silos, so employees need to understand every aspect of the business that has an impact on their work, and have the freedom to decide what is best for their company. With this in mind, scalability becomes easier as you can avoid indepartmental bureaucracies and middle management, and instead give the reins to the employees.
This kind of active and decentralised leadership will also be necessary in future, to manage and direct the many processes that AI will do for us.
Innovating with AI
Using AI to grow an enterprise will not be as simple as automating the processes within the company, there needs to be a structure for it to fit into. Innovation comes from the human ability to generalise, to notice insufficiency, and to make abstractions to solve problems. To foster these traits we need to stop thinking like machines, and use the working environment to move into a wider way of thinking, working, and doing business. Within this new framework, AI will only make it easier for businesses to expand now, and for generations to come.