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As we head into a new year and a new decade, I thought it was an appropriate time to build on my blog from earlier in 2019 The Future of Work Part 1 and take a look at what might be just around the corner in 2020 as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Digital Workers start to gain traction in real world business transformation solutions and applications.

There is much to think, and maybe worry, about as we enter a new decade with the continued presence of  political and social pressures that would have been hard to predict 10 years ago but are really influencing how people think about technology and if they should be pessimistic or optimistic about what the future holds. The Economist just wrote a year end special report on the contemporary worries of the impact of technology. A very worthy read if you subscribe online or can still find a copy on the shelves.

However, to me the challenge is much clearer and well defined and has been worked on actively by vendors in the ECM and BPM space for many years. The defining trend at the intersection of business and technology over the last 10+ years has been the drive for worker productivity (we could have called it “digital working” I guess – it is the same thing!) especially in white collar processes where costs are high and transformation to new business models hard to execute irrespective of the IT budget companies throw at their challenges. This is where the combination of content and process technologies has real proven impact and can continue to be leveraged as companies under take digital transformation projects to support new business models.

Achieving new levels of white collar worker productivity means making more of the workers more productive more of the time – essentially spreading expertise that used to be resident in one or two departmental “experts” to a much broader number of people but in a simpler and easier to consume way. This spreading, or democratization, of expertise can be achieved through better sharing of information, automation of work tasks and processes and adding intelligence and machine learning to many steps in what used to be manual processes.

Gartner just announced their Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2020 and at #3 on the list is what they call the Democratization of Expertise – defined as “wider access to technical expertise (e.g., ML, application development etc.) or business domain expertise (e.g., sales process, economic analysis etc.) for users via a radically simplified experience and without requiring extensive and costly training”

This Gartner definition aligns with some of my thoughts expressed in The Future of Work Part 1 and  I believe the journey to a democratic work environment is going to be long and hard and full of business process automation challenges the many of the people who will read this blog will be very aware of and well prepared for. This combination of technical expertise and business domain expertise is really what information management has always been about.

My view is that in this brave new world instead of working the way some dark technology system says  workers should work, these digital workers will be given the power to work the way that is best for them – best for their customer, their supplier, their business partners – whomever their stakeholders are. The desire of corporations to build fixed business processes that provide predictable outcomes, hard coded into massive systems and technology platforms is breaking down due to AI and Machine Learning technologies. This could be seen as impending anarchy in the workplace, but the tools and skills exist today to bring an appropriate level of structure to digital business processes without constraining the creativity of a new generation of digitally aware workers. The concept of well trained “digital workers” being able to consume the services and application they need, when and how they want, is no longer an information management dream – solutions exist today that help workers collaborate, manage and process all types of work objects and “cases” in the way they believe will generate the best outcomes.

Companies will need to build a digital process environment where workers inside and outside the corporate firewall can pick the apps they feel will help them do their job best. And the chances are that, as with any normal distribution, some people will have the skills and capability to adapt to this new environment very quickly, the majority of people will do “OK” and 20% of the people will struggle to make the transition so this basically becomes a change management challenge more than a technology challenge.

If we make a broad assumption that a large percentage of the 20% that struggle will be retiring in the next 3-5 years then our focus should really be on how to leverage the 20% of leaders to capture their skills and best practices to enable and train the 60% in the middle of the curve.

Normal Distribution Curve

So, tools that offer flexible choices in task selection for digital workers but then map and analyze the best practice and the most productive end to end processes will be in high demand. These will include tools that analyze what information is accessed and when and how to complete a set of tasks with the highest quality outcome. There will also be a need to analyze tasks and map the timeline and sequence of task execution.

Many of these tools exists already, some have been packaged into solutions that focus on specific types of work like insurance claims processing or fraud investigation, others are available to be easily integrated with existing platforms like Salesforce.com, SAP etc.

Irrespective of the tools available the key will be the availability of skills and expertise in business process and information management techniques that transcend technology and, although these will need to be upgraded, there are many very well trained and skilled practitioners who already have deep knowledge of how to assemble digital processes and work practices. The AIIM community of professionals has a robust set of best practice, education courses and real world experience than can help organizations large and small in the continued pursuit of white collar productivity and transforming their workforces into true digital workers not just human robots!

I am writing this blog sitting in one of the more unique locations for an industry trade meeting that I have ever experienced – The Churchill War Rooms in London. You can always rely on AIIM and its President Peggy Winton to pick interesting places to draw a crowd. My previous AIIM Advisory Trade Member (ATM) experience in London was held inside of Tower Bridge! Being in London at the height of all the Brexit drama and debate does make you feel a bit like heading for a military bunker but we are not here to discuss Brexit (thank goodness) but rather to apply some serious information management experience and talent to the future of our industry and more importantly to The Future of Work itself! 

I am fascinated by the intensity of debate on the future of work. Recently I attended a presentation by the politico-economist Paul Mason on the future of work and his new book The Radical Defence of the Human Being. I have reviewed AIIM’s latest report on the Digital Workplace by John Mancini (excellent video summary by John >> here) and numerous articles in The Economist and more mainstream press. The rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and other technology solutions are leading to a fascinating overlap of discussions that range from the technocratic to the wider social impacts. 

In my opinion, the future of work and the emergence of the digital workplace is possibly the number one issue facing both businesses (large and small, global and local) and their technology vendors. The very serious social and economic issues associated with how people will work in the future, the replacement of human tasks by “robots” (of both the physical and virtual type) and the relentless trend toward online commerce and services are creating critical questions that essentially remain unanswered. 

So, what did the information management industry’s leading vendors at the London meeting think the answers are? Well… AIIM did an excellent job in assembling a panel of end users from some high profile organizations that were able to speak very eloquently on the challenges confronting them in information management – from basic records management and archiving to the critical issues of serving global customers with information in almost every conceivable format. The panelists were top quality speakers from The Church of England, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited and The International Criminal Court. They explained real world problems for which there are no easy answers – for information access, management, analysis and processing. 

It’s obvious from the discussion that the “digital workplace” is the end game, and that reaching that goal is a journey of many steps. But the real challenge seems to be figuring what steps to take when and how. Implementing advanced RPA solutions ahead of getting control of the thousands of documents that exist in your Dropbox or OneDrive folders would sound a bit foolish, because surely even robots need to know where the information is in order to execute a process step or two! Or implementing advance content intelligence and AI across all sources of information when you can’t even address your customer emails in a timely manner would make no sense. 

The immediate challenge, and one that vendors can help solve, is more around the practices, methodologies, processes and approaches that help their customers embrace more productive ways of working in planned steps on a digital workplace roadmap. Each conversation with the customer should acknowledge that even though there may be similarities, each company’s roadmap will be different in some way and therefore the future of work at each organization will also be different.

I believe it is every vendor’s responsibility to have an opinion and vision on The Future of Work as it pertains to their technology and solutions – and that doesn’t mean a technology pitch which focuses on product features and functions, but a well thought through vision for how their products and solutions can help their customers achieve specific steps on their roadmap to a digital workplace. Examples could be case management solutions for a range of critical business tasks that are related to complaints irrespective of the source of the complaint (web, social media, email, paper, voice etc) that automates basic manual tasks using RPA technology and executes predictive analysis on incoming complaints to match a specific customer service professionals skillset and maybe even their personality to the “tone” of the complaint. 

The roots of these solutions that help customers achieve their digital workplace vision are very much in the technologies many of us know well – the capture and identification of content, the management of information, the automation of manual tasks using business process automation technologies, etc. However, the narrative around these solutions has changed and its absolutely critical that vendors who once painted themselves as “Enterprise Content Management” or “Document Capture” solution providers now reinvent themselves. They need to recast their Go-To-Market Strategies, Positioning & Messaging and their Pipeline Development efforts to reflect this new world and the journey towards the digital workplace.  Having an opinion and vision for The Future of Work is no longer optional, it is imperative and should be front and center in all vendor positioning, from the web site to the sales presentations – anything less will condemn them to the back row in an increasingly noisy and hectic market place.