Automating work should not be thought about as a Big Bang: Ravin Jesuthasan

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on November 26, 2019 Published on November 26, 2019

Automation is here and it is here to stay. Organisation cutting across sectors and verticals are scrambling for solutions on dealing with its impacts and making maximum value out of the disruption. But most of them seem confused about how to harness the benefits of automation. In Reinventing Jobs, Ravin Jesuthasan and John W Boudreau offer business leaders an actionable handbook on the art of optimising work automation. Jesuthasan speaks to BusinessLine on the book and beyond. Edited excerpts:

Why this book, and why now?

We were concerned with the prevailing narrative of automation destroying jobs and we wanted to show business leaders that automation affects tasks and can do one of three things; it substitutes, it augments and it creates human work. We wanted to give leaders a framework and toolkit for achieving the optimal combinations of humans and machines.


Is automation a necessary disruption?

Throughout history, automation has progressively advanced the human condition. It has raised our standard of living and made work more bearable. We are part of that continuing journey.

Reinventing jobs to optimise work between humans and automation sounds great but where do we really begin?

A lot of organisations seem confused. The key is to start with the work (not the technology). We must think of tasks and not jobs. Our framework is intended to help leaders get started.

What are the key parameters of doing so?

Every organisation needs to develop the capability to understand emerging technologies and be prepared to experiment with it. Automating work should not be thought about as a “big bang”, rather it should be viewed as a process of continuous experimentation and learning.

How can we ensure this is done judiciously?

There are two parts to this analysis; what can be theoretically automated and what should be practically automated. This requires the engagement of all stakeholders and it requires the business to have a sense of mission and purpose that extends beyond the mere goal of near term profit.

Does automation focuses on quantity rather than quality?

No; the impact of automation on work is not binary. As I previously referenced, it can substitute, augment and/or create humans work. There are plenty of examples where the substitution of human work with automation reduces errors and increases throughput, particularly for work where the objective function is to reduce errors or minimize variance.

You talk about ROIP (return on improved performance) being a determining factor while introducing automation. But how does an organisation estimate this before introducing automation?

It is important to understand the nature of work and what we are trying to solve for. For any given body of work, there are 4 potential outcomes; reducing errors, minimizing variance, incrementally improving productivity or generating exponential improvements.

Have you looked at any India- or emerging markets -specific issues in automation?

The speed of change and rising wage premiums in emerging markets makes it essential that business leaders are actively considering and experimenting with automation.

Does automation demand a new approach to leadership?

It requires business leaders to think more deeply about leading a distributed ecosystem of work providers (employees, AI vendors, gig workers, etc.). This requires new leadership muscle related to orchestrating the ecosystem and aligning the varied interests to the culture of the business.

How should a business leader react to situations where the moral and social cost of automation outweighs the business benefits in the short term but can turn the other way in the long term?

The organisation must have a clear mission and purpose that extends beyond mere profit and serves as its north star. This mission and purpose, which should reflect the needs of all stakeholders, should provide a clear guide to leadership when faced with conflicts.

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Published on November 26, 2019
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