Man Vs Machine
Giles Slinger

Man versus Machine: Preparing for the businesses of the future

Artificial intelligence (AI) has consistently been high in the news agenda in 2015. In April, Professor Stephen Hawking, speaking at the Zeitgeist 2015 Conference in London, predicted that artificial intelligence will overtake humanity within the next 100 years. Earlier this month, it was announced that billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has donated £6 million to fund research projects dedicated to keeping AI ‘beneficial’. Yet although AI has many workplace applications, should employees really be concerned that they will be replaced by machines?

Giles Slinger, Director at data analytics firm Concentra, discusses how advances in technology will affect the businesses of the near-future.

The race for digital excellence

With the value of analytics to business estimated to be worth $3.5 trillion by late 2015, data holds an increasingly important place in the management and growth of companies. The rapid application of AI is being driven by the wealth of data produced by modern businesses.

Particular sectors are ahead of others, with advanced analytics a mainstay in industries such as financial services, where investment banks and pension funds use big data to develop the algorithms used to make trading decisions. In this way, machines have already replaced traditional roles, supporting faster decision-making and spotting patterns that would escape the human eye.

Playing catch up

However, many businesses are still only scratching the surface of the opportunities that organisational analytics brings.

The HR sector has begun to embrace automated approaches to areas such as recruitment, utilising automated screening and social media analysis to identify the most suitable candidates. That said, in understanding and optimising organisational effectiveness, companies have not yet realised the potential benefits of AI.

Traditionally, it is difficult for functions handling organisational data to translate the impact of people in tangible terms. People have no single performance metric. This makes them tricky to measure, in contrast to other departments such as marketing or finance, which can often make decisions based on simple metrics: cost, profitability or Return on Investment.

Yet data is integral to the success of HR, tracking employee objectives, competencies and performance to understand their impact on the business. By utilising this data, businesses can identify additional capacity, the company’s most valuable assets and rising stars, as well as the opportunities to gain the competitive edge over its rivals.

So how will this data revolution affect businesses in the next few years?

Better businesses built on technology

Technology will continue to give businesses greater insights into people-based opportunities for growth. One company to benefit from a data and technology-driven approach is consumer electronics retailer Elkjøp. By using psychometric testing and performance analysis to enhance their recruitment process, they achieved an 80% reduction in failed hires and initial results forecast €10 million in cost savings and increased performance as a direct consequence.

A second approach to getting more from people data is to use existing ‘middle data’ – the information from internal social networks, email systems, or learning management systems. These can help the organisation to map out its collective brain power: which areas of the business are learning, communicating and building knowledge.

A third approach is to take explicit steps to map and nourish the informed networks within the organisation. By asking simple questions, such as ‘who are the people who get things done?’ the organisation can see heat maps of key influencers who should be brought into a change process. By asking about time usage and opportunities for improvement, the organisation can see where it spends its time, its costs and what it can do to improve.

While the benefits of a technology-led data analytics approach are clear, businesses will continue to rely on people to implement new working practices, and we still trust human judgement over machines. For example, when modelling a future organisation and implementing a business transformation, data analytics represents a huge opportunity to deliver desired future business states better and faster.

The most logical decision from the point of view of one metric may not always be best for individuals or the business as a whole. Equally, communication, which is at the heart of any transformation, cannot come from a machine. Business change can be nerve-wracking for employees. Ensuring people understand the processes in place and the reasons for change is something which can only be delivered and understood person to person.

Only human judgement can comprehend the nuances of a business and its people in order to achieve the optimum outcome. Technology can help us to ask more questions, but it does not give us all the answers, and while computers can identify trends and connections, they are unable to tell the story behind trends and speak to people in a room or act accordingly.

Computers may excel at calculations, optimisation and cost control, but for managing the direction, creativity and development of a business, give me people over petabytes every time.

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