Wednesday 12 December 2018

The risks when an algorithm takes your job

An interesting Forrester blog highlights some of the risks of process automation

NAO Robot
image from wikimedia commons
We live in a world where automation is beginning to impact knowledge work, in the same way that it impacted manual work in the last century.  On the one hand this is great news for organisations, as it can potentially revolutionize the productivity of the knowledge worker. On the other hand it brings risk.

One attractive opportunity is process automation, where a process that a human used to operate can become automated. The rules, heuristics and knowledge applied by the human can be extracted, using various knowledge management techniques, and turned into an algorithm which a computer or robot can use.

So a job like drafting a will, or cooking a meal, or monitoring a refinery, can be automated. Human knowledge is converted into algorithms, and the know-how that a human used to employ is passed to a machine which will reproduce the logic faithfully, tirelessly, without error, and for a fraction of the lifetime cost.

The problem of course is that know-how is not enough, and we also need know-why.  The know-how is great in a predictable environment, but the know-why is needed once you move into uncharted territory.

That's one of the messages given in this Forrester blog entitled "Ghost In The Machine? No, It’s A Robot, And It Is Here To Help". The author, Daniel Morneau, is an advisor on the Technology council, and writes in the blog about robotic process automation, the benefits it will bring, and the governance it will need.

He also quotes one Industry leader who identifies a risk he had not anticipated:

"The hard lesson I learned is that once that knowledge is built into the bot and the employee goes out the door, it’s gone forever,” he said...“We captured the process in the code, right? I mean, the bot knows how to follow the process; we’ve just lost the business logic behind it”

When Moreau asked him what he would do differently, having learned this lesson, he replied

"I’d document the business logic where I can (and) I’d find a way to keep the best employees whose roles are being replaced so their deep understanding of the business logic can be available as we continue to support our businesses. I mean, the business function that that system is used for is not going away, and having employees who have a deep understanding of our business is the hardest thing to hire for".

So that's an interesting conclusion about the need for human knowledge of business logic.

We may increasingly outsource some of the know-how to the robots, but we still need to retain humans with the know-why. 

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