Automation has been a key business lever, particularly to tackle the Covid-19 challenge, as human touch could lead to spread of the virus. Assessing the amount of human touch that will be required for a particular business will be a key decision for leaders in the immediate term
In these unchartered times ushered in by the all-pervasive impact of the Covid-19 virus, managers face an unenviable dilemma. How do they balance the need for a people-centric workplace, with the inexorable organisational demands to pay attention to the bottom line, by minimising coordination and communication costs?
The answer lies in using the human touch to soothe over the jagged organisational edges that could shred morale and camaraderie, which are so vital to producing the superlative outcomes that management desires. Many technically competent supervisors who lack interpersonal leadership skills, resort to using Herzberg’s Hygiene Factors to manipulate subordinates. In sharp contrast, adept managers use Herzberg’s Motivators to get the best out of their people who wish to be valued and feel wanted.
Automation has been a key business lever primarily for productivity, using machines and algorithms to get more work done with the least inputs. However, to tackle the Covid-19 challenge, human-to-human touch or the lack of it can become a major drive for automation, to avoid the spread of the virus infection. A framework that looks at the extent of human interaction and the level of structured or rule-based decision making can be developed (Figure 1) to see where each organisation fits and its way forward.
Low interaction jobs could be handled using impersonal communication channels and mechanisms like e-mails, memos, standard operating procedures, etc. High interaction calls for personal coordination mechanisms like phone calls, virtual or face-to-face meetings between two or more individuals.
Structured decision-making is rule-based and does not need much human involvement. At the other extreme, unstructured situations arise when the unknown unknowns need to be handled. Four scenarios arise out of the two levels of human touch and decision-making:
Impersonal-Structured Work in this category is a prime candidate for automation using ‘bots’. Bots can support employees working remotely for repeatable chores such as work flows, task allocation, communication, report generation, query resolution etc., They can handle a majority of situations based on predefined rules along with exception handing.
Impersonal-Unstructured This category of “pooled” interdependence work is best done remote and distributed, by qualified/competent individuals who don’t need hand holding or micromanagement, with the boss responsible for coordinating and “pulling things together”. Periodic video conference calls when required or just to ensure things are going apace, especially at the beginning when tasks are being apportioned, and at the end to tie up any loose ends would be sufficient. R&D and customer services are examples of typical roles in this category.
Personal-Structured Deep-learning AI systems can replace people in this category. Neural networks that mimic human behaviour use pattern matching and self-learning to take decisions on their own, improving in accuracy with every opportunity to classify a situation. Last mile delivery jobs for physical goods or digital content are in this category.
This category of “reciprocal/team” interdependence work requiring extensive real time face-to-face communication calls for a traditional 'office' environment, where synergy of individuals working together (brainstorming, mutual adjustment, etc) produces results. Extreme care must be taken for social distancing to ensure a hygienic environment.
Knowing the amount of human touch that will be required for a particular business can be a key decision for leaders, policy makers and influencers to make in the immediate to medium term. When combined with the type of decision-making required for each type of role, it adds an additional dimension of complexity. Understanding the four broad types of jobs that can result from these two factors proactively can be a useful tool for policy makers and influencers.
Managers could enhance their human touch capabilities through neoskilling. While focusing on tangible deliverables, neoskilling ensures that bosses also simultaneously concentrate on soft skills. By emphasizing on intangibles, they imbibe a mindset that fosters double- and/or triple-loop learning, while thinking on their feet with an agile frame of mind. Consequently, they are able to proactively and holistically cope with the numerous immediate operational problems that call for continuous short-term improvisations, without ignoring medium and long-term issues.
About authors: L Prasad is professor at IIM Bangalore and S Ramachandran is Principal Consultant at Infosys Knowledge Institute
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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