The Future of Workforce Management: How Your Robot Will Make You Better

The Future of Workforce Management: How Your Robot Will Make You Better

By Jeff Boudreau

If you happen to read, watch, listen or talk to people who follow business news and forecasts, you’re probably aware that robots are coming to take our jobs. A startling paper written in 2013 by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, based on Oxford University studies, predicted that up to 47% of U.S. jobs (weighted across all Bureau of Labor Statistics categories) are at risk to “automation and computerization”. But don’t be be too alarmed. The future rarely turns out the way futurists predict. Even so, autonomous devices and vehicles, robotic process automation, and human assisting “co-bots” can do some astoundingly complex tasks, including write articles, interview job candidates, drive tractor-trailer caravans cross-country, and craft complex contracts. These newer skills are on top of better known applications such as working in harsh, inhuman environments; and picking, placing, and configuring products with more safety and precision than can possibly be done by a human. These capabilities are advancing by what seems an exponential rate.

So you might ask “why do we still have so many jobs in our society”? As I pen this (yes, I actually wrote this by hand), the U.S. economy has more job openings than at any other time in history. I think there are two factors to consider.

First, robotic technologies are initially changing the nature of human effort by modifying work elements or tasks contained in a job. Our roles are not being replaced, but rather reconfigured – a trend we’ve experienced since the beginning of the first industrial revolution. Early days of automation provided speed and power to forge metal and transport goods. These often came at the expense of the worker who was ill-suited to tend to these big machines or sit behind the wheel of a rig – unable to do, participate, or collaborate anything else.

Now we can think of these new automation applications as force multipliers of human capabilities. Rather than replacing people, these tools serve, assist and empower skills humans are most adept at doing. Now a stock clerk can have her co-bot follow along with the lifting and transport of product while she can merchandise displays; or a lawyer can tweak and modify a contract based on a pre-prepared draft and follow the robot’s guidance on negotiation strategies.

Second, so how does workforce management (WFM) fit in? WFM (aka labor management (LM)) is a set of tactical software and engineering approaches for streamlining and standardizing work so as to eliminate wasted time in an established process, enable people to achieve and record high performance, and then be recognized and rewarded. Since the early days in manufacturing, companies have used these highly engineered variations of piece-rate systems to create platforms for achieving high human productivity and machine utilization. With robotic automation, these issues are still essential. Aligning enabling technologies with the fundaments of human motivation theories can transform how we work by unleashing human potential in the struggle for a sense of achievement while ensuring high-value use of technology. Now my fingers are numb – where’s my robot?