The automation of work and the digital disruption of business models place a premium on leaders who can create a vision of change and frame it positively.
How disruptive will accelerating workplace automation be for organizations in the future? For decades, businesses have deployed technology to reduce costs and complexity, make better products, and develop new business models. But the new potential of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics poses major new challenges for leaders as they seek to reset their strategies for a digital age.
Last November, Bloomberg chairman Peter Grauer and Nadir Mohamed, the recently retired CEO of Rogers Communications, sat down with Manfred Kets de Vries, a professor at INSEAD, and Harvard professor Robert Kegan to debate some of the issues with Claudio Feser, head of McKinsey’s leadership development initiative. Their conversation started at the movies . . .
Peter Grauer: Recently, I was watching Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in a 1957 movie called Desk Set, about the early stages of computerization in offices. The workforce was petrified that it was going to end up out of work. In the end, the employees learned that they weren’t going to lose their jobs. In fact, their jobs were going to become more interesting because, as we see in Bloomberg’s global data operation today, the computer does the more routine work and humans can do the more analytical work.
The top-line benefit is that the quality of what we do gets better. Bloomberg is the largest provider of news-related data analytics and execution for the financial-services sector worldwide. Obviously, given what the sector has gone through during the last eight years, we’ve restructured our business dramatically. In the end, though, we’ve also become more efficient and able to provide increasingly higher-quality information to customers.
Claudio Feser: Recent research on workplace automation from the McKinsey Global Institute1suggests that advances in artificial intelligence and robotics mean that we’ve only taken the first few steps of a long journey that mainly lies ahead of us. From your perspective, are we at a turning point, or is none of this necessarily that new?
Peter Grauer: I happen to think companies have been living with this for a long time. For us, deploying technology is an absolute necessity, and we have to reinvent ourselves all the time. What’s new is that the speed of change in automation is dramatically faster than it once was.
Nadir Mohamed: Automation isn’t new. I think what is different, just in the last few years—and will become more significant and more frequent—is the intersection between automation and changing business models.
Automation itself may or may not lead to business-model change. It depends on how you think about this. Automation can mean taking a process and doing it much faster, better, and cheaper. Or automation can fundamentally change what a business offers, requiring a new business model and profoundly disrupting an organization or industry in the process.
We tend to see these two things as the same, but they aren’t. In banking, for example, you could think of discount brokerages either as the automation of tasks or as the potential disintermediation of a bank’s offering to customers. The implications are profoundly different.
Robert Kegan: I agree. Some kinds of automation help organizations to move faster and more efficiently, versus transforming the business and bringing about a new paradigm. You have to be mindful of the difference. Take the simple example of student papers today. Thanks to technology, they are more handsome to look at than they were in earlier times. You could be forgiven for thinking, sometimes, that they’d been published by a professional publisher. But the thinking of the students isn’t necessarily any better. Technology can keep us where we are, but moving faster. Looking at it another way, you could say, “the greatest opportunities are going to require transformation. How can technology help me with that?”