Redefining work in the digital age

Digital technologies are changing the way work is done at CIO100 award-winning organizations, empowering employees to shift focus to higher-value activities.

cio1002018 feature story changing the way we work
Gabriela Zurda

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Intelligent digital assistants comb through big data to discover an obscure insight, triggering real-time rerouting of the supply chain and capitalizing on unmet demand. Software bots automate repetitive data entry tasks, freeing up knowledge workers to focus on analysis and ideation. At an industrial site, predictive analytics uncover a glitch and proactively initiate a fix, heading off the need to deploy operators to avert a downtime disaster.

In every corner of every business, digital technologies are actively transforming how workers get their jobs done. Technology has always been about boosting efficiency and productivity, but this latest technology wave aims for much more. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, the internet of things (IoT), big data and predictive analytics, among other innovations, are being tapped by companies to upend the employee experience, creating novel job types, demanding fresh skills and ushering in a new era of human and machine collaboration.

“As companies digitize, what’s left for employees is more complex and difficult to do,” explains Kristine Dery, research scientist at MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research, part of the Sloan School of Management. “Employee experience is figuring out how to engage more easily in the world of work that enables employees to do more complex things easier.”

Dery’s group uses two factors to define employee experience: work complexity, or how hard it is to get work done in an organization, and behavioral norms around collaboration, creativity and empowerment. In some cases, digital capabilities enhance how employees work, making processes more efficient or more accurate, she explains. However, the real differentiator is when digital technology is leveraged to redefine work, replacing, augmenting or creating new roles and tasks, she explains.

As this transition gets underway, there are mounting concerns that automation will replace human workers. While true to some degree, experts argue that most of the displacement will occur for routine, highly repetitive and scalable tasks, enabling workers to shift focus to different types of work. According to research from Accenture, nearly three-quarters of executives surveyed (74 percent) said they plan to use AI to automate tasks to a large or very large degree in the next three years, but almost all (97 percent) intend to use AI to enhance worker capabilities.

To ensure a successful transition, experts say organizations must figure out the right intersection of humans and intelligent machines. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed by Accenture said human-machine collaboration is important to achieving strategic priorities, while 46 percent believe traditional job descriptions are now obsolete and 29 percent have already redesigned job roles extensively. “We’ve never seen change like this,” says Katherine Lavelle, managing director of Accenture’s Strategy, Talent & Organization practice in North America. “This is about generating new levels of capabilities and results for clients and customers augmented through smart automation and humans. Whoever figures out the collaboration between the two is poised to win the war.”

Training and reskilling workers will be essential to creating an enhanced employee experience that redefines the nature of work. “In some ways, we’ll go back to the basics on things we put a value on prior to automation,” Lavelle says. “Human communication, synthesis and judgment, negotiation, managing costs and integration points — there will be a renewed emphasis on human interaction across functions.”

Those companies delivering outstanding employee-facing digital capabilities will achieve more than simply modernizing and sprucing up the workforce — they are likely to reap significant performance gains. According to MIT’s research, companies in the top quarter of those delivering high-grade employee experience are twice as innovative in delivering new products and services, report double the customer satisfaction, and enjoy 25 percent greater profitability.

“This is not just about skills or efficiency,” Lavelle says. “Organizations are viewing smart automation as the new age where they can take performance to another level.”

Read ahead to see how five 2018 CIO 100 award winners are riding the digital wave to transform work and enhance employee experience.

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