“I can’t quite believe you still have not taken into account the human factor.” This line from the climax of the 2016 film Sully, starring Tom Hanks, is said during a safety hearing into why an airliner was forced to land on New York’s Hudson River. Investigators show computer simulations they claim prove Captain Sully could have safely reached a runway, if he followed what his instruments were indicating.
But Sully reminds them that the human factor was not considered – that simulations and instruments cannot account for everything that needed to be done. Sully’s words are a salient reminder that technology can only do so much; that a skilled pilot in command of a machine remains superior to the autopilot. This can be difficult to remember as we seek constant technological improvements, particularly in exciting fields like Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT) and robotics, where the goal can seem to cut out the human factor altogether.
This can produce fear in workers that robots will take their jobs and promote fantasies for management that technology alone is a silver bullet solution to their problems. But as we shape the future of work and technology’s place within it through digital transformation, the human factor must not only be considered – it must be the focus. Because while all technology has limits, the potential for humans to find ways to harness them is limitless.
Practical intelligence is as crucial as artificial intelligence
In my work to bring digital transformation to businesses, I have observed a growing chasm between the appreciation of artificial intelligence and the practical intelligence of humans. Yet the successes I have seen for digital transformation all have one thing in common – they put the practical intelligence of humans at the centre, using technology as a tool that allows for better decision making and action taking. Because the ultimate goal of digital transformation is to use technology to optimise workflows, so that human operators can do a better job. Simply adding technology to a workflow is an incomplete solution. Without the intuition and direct action of a skilled human worker being included in this newly advanced workflow, you may find there are a lot of buttons and no one qualified to push them.
Skilled human operators are themselves a form of technology, or even intellectual property, with years of training, experience and insight that are crucial to the successful implementation of any advanced technology. So if you think a machine is going to take your job, don’t worry. Companies that succeed with digital transformation will use technology to make your job better. And those who simply trust technology will take care of everything, will likely be calling for your help when things go wrong.
Information must enable practical intelligence
One of the flagship pieces of technology for the Internet of Things in the mainstream consumer market is the Smart Fridge. Early versions used sensors to tell householders that certain items within the fridge like milk were running low. But you could do that yourself simply by opening the door and looking. While the first Smart Fridges were exciting, they didn’t truly add tangible value to people’s lives until more advanced versions appeared that focused on improving the “workflow” of their use.
Modern smart fridges now use their sensors to detect shortages, but they also add needed items to digital shopping lists for people to act upon, or allow householders to authorise the fridge to add items to an online order they then approve. The point here is that while the gathering of information is important, it’s nothing without a process that collates it into something actionable by a person. Looking at wider industry, IoT-enabled devices or infrastructure are very useful in triggering alerts based on the condition of equipment or situations, but they can’t take effective action.
Switching our view to an industry example, an oil and gas company that places IoT sensors on an offshore drilling platform will gather plenty of useful information about the state of its equipment. But unless that information is used to identify tasks that need to be accomplished – triggering a workflow that empowers a human worker to take action – then all it is, is background noise.
Refine information to refine your process
So, how do we get the right mix of information to create better workflows that benefit humans? Instead of focusing on bolting on new technology and hoping for the best, companies need to focus on the grunt work of gathering data and harmonising it.
While gathering information from as many sources as possible is a vital step, this can create a confusing picture that cannot easily be used for sound decision-making – “paralysis through analysis” in other words. To improve this, data harmonisation is used to make a clean data set that provides clear insight. With data harmonisation, you can filter out what’s needed and what’s not, then use the right information to create a better workflow. And the best workflow is one that is harmonised with workers to empower them to make decisions and take action. So, while a group of sensors on an oil and gas platform can indicate corrosion issues, it still takes a human worker to initiate the workflow to enact the repairs. Even with AI or robotics in the mix, such decisions and actions still need to be made and followed through with skilled human input. If the human factor is neglected, you can end up with a blizzard of information with no clear path through it, and create a system that tries to run itself and fails.
Invest in people and tech will pay off
The temptation with advanced technologies is to believe they will replace workers and make everything within an organisation happen automatically. This way of thinking may grab quick headlines or inspire science fiction movies, but the true work of digital transformation is a much more organic process that empowers people rather than taking away their roles. Whilst automation and artificial intelligence are being avidly pursued across many industries, time and again we see the need for the human factor to be considered and included.
The many mining companies that have embraced remotely controlled or autonomous vehicles still retain vast workforces of skilled operators, mechanics and programmers to ensure the machines stay online. The future of work is not one where humans do nothing – it is where humans do things never thought possible before. The most effective workplaces will be ones where companies have taken the time to understand that efficient workflows, created from harmonised data, offer the most effective and efficient use of both the artificial intelligence of machines, and the practical intelligence of humans. Only by embracing the human factor will we truly unlock the power of AI, IoT and robotics, using these advancements as tools for human hands to build the future with.