Technology

Fear Not the AI Overlords! Humans Have Intrinsic Value.

There is significant hype about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its potential to take over many jobs thought safe from Automation.  It has been suggested AI could replace accountants, lawyers, doctors, and even general management activities.  While it is true that advances in AI will certainly change many jobs, as so often happens, the fear is exaggerated.  First, there is no evidence to support the notion automation has ever eliminated more jobs than it has created.  Second, and more importantly, humans have intrinsic value that is unlikely to ever be replicated or replaced.

The Fear of Losing Jobs

Before anyone gets too excited, a recent Wall Street Journal article highlights the facts of mass automation in the past.  Technology from the cotton gin through AI has always eliminated some jobs, but historically it has also created far more and better paying jobs as a result.  Sure surrey drivers were put out of work with the advent of the automobile, but the auto industry created millions of jobs supporting the US GDP for decades.  AI is simply the latest in a long-line of technological advances feared to lead to the end of our society.  It has never happened before and is unlikely to happen anytime soon.  It is true that some jobs may cease to exist, but this will be accompanied by a growth of new jobs supporting the AI industry.  Even more remarkable will be the new jobs that don’t even exist today.

A recent report from the Institute for the Future estimates 85% of the jobs today’s students will perform by the year 2030 haven’t yet been invented.  This is a difficult prospect for today’s workers to imagine, but it is not without precedent.  Student’s graduating high school in the 1990’s could not have imagined careers working in web design, social media, or – for that matter — artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data.  Another recent article from MIT Sloan Management Review hints at some of the new jobs AI technology may create.

On top of all of that, it is unlikely many of the jobs being predicted to succumb to AI will actually go away.  It is much more likely they will be augmented and changed than disappear entirely.  And the reason is simple: humans have innate value in performing jobs in a human society.

Humans Have Intrinsic Value

Although AI is redefining what is considered automata by allowing more variation in performance, it is still not human.  Human beings are defined by the irrational and emotional more than they are by cold, calculated precision.  While this may seem to be a negative aspect of humans, it is also the source of the innovation, creativity, and passion that simply cannot be replicated.  Just for sake of argument, let’s examine just one of the jobs proposed to be replaced in the future by AI: management.

Business management is an oft misunderstood discipline, which does not benefit from the HR moniker “people manager”.  You manage objects, but you lead people.  Objects are managed to gain efficiency, but they have finite limitations. You cannot encourage a robot to be more productive.  You cannot ignite passion in your inventory tracking software to go above and beyond.  Yet human beings have nearly limitless capability to “reach for a goal”, “put in extra effort”, or “embrace shared visions”.  While this can also work to reduce human performance (as discussed in this article from MIT Sloan Management Review), this is critical distinction when looking at the effects of AI in particular.

Management, in its truest sense, is absolutely ripe for AI replacement.  Eliminating the idiosyncracies of human performance can have significant value to organizations.  AI is simply better able to gather, process, and act on vast amounts of data where human input is less vital (although not necessarily irrelevant).  By offloading these tedious and taxing responsibilities, while also improving their performance, humans can spend more time doing the things where they have intrinsic, and irreplaceable value (See article from Swiss Cognitive).

Leadership, on the other hand, will no longer need to take backseat to management.  By focusing on leadership, organizations will not only gain the advantages of AI-based management efficiency, but also from the benefits of stronger human performance.  In essence, organizational leaders will be able to offload the tasks they don’t do very well anyway, and focus on the actions that lead to truly superior performance.

Fear Not!!

While the example above focuses on my area of expertise, the same can be said for many other jobs ripe for AI augmentation.  AI, like the cotton gin and automobile before it, are tools that will augment and improve the way we work.  Yes, some jobs may be significantly reduced or eliminated; however, they will be replaced by newer and better jobs.  The jobs getting augmented by AI will simply change, putting more focus on the human aspect.  It is not the end of the world.

 

 

Advertisements

NetFlix: Practical Examples of People, Process, and Culture in Creating Innovation

In keeping with the traditional analysis of innovative success, a post hoc examination of an organization known for innovation provides anecdotal evidence of the impact of people, process, and culture on organizational success.  By most accounts, Netflix, Inc. (Netflix) is considered a prime example of successful innovation.  Netflix is the leading Internet-based television network and counts some 44 million customers in 40 countries streaming more than one billion hours of content (Netflix, 2014).  Since its initial public offering in 2002, Netflix has moved from an innovative provider of DVD rentals-by-mail to become the dominant player in the pure-play Internet streaming market, a market they almost single-handedly pioneered (Netflix, 2014).  Netflix has enjoyed significant growth in market share, customers, and stock valuation over the years, and the stage has been set for further growth through international expansion, strategic partnerships, and the creation of their own content (Ramachandran, 2014a, 2014b, 2015; Ramachandran & Stynes, 2015; Schwartz, 2015). An examination of key elements of Netflix’s success suggest that business models is not the only thing that Netflix has innovated on the road to becoming a household name.

One of the better-known innovations of Netflix is the organizational culture playbook they developed.  Incorporating aspects of both people and culture, the Netflix employee handbook was presented in 127 presentation slides (McCord, 2014).  From a people perspective, Netflix purports to “hire, reward, and tolerate only fully formed adults” (2014, p. 4).  Among the corporate values are the courage to speak your mind, the ability to make sound independent judgments, being curious, and being innovative (Hastings, 2009).  Hastings also suggests “adequate performance gets a generous severance package” (slide 22).  Netflix not only states a goal to hire and retain only the best people, but also sets an upfront expectation of a culture that supports innovation.  A key element in the Netflix employee methodology is a management philosophy to create a culture of freedom and innovation with employee self-discipline and freedom eliminating many of typical corporate controls like performance reviews, bonuses, and managed vacation time (McCord, 2014).  According to the founder of Netflix, “we’ve had hundreds of years to work on managing industrial firms … we’re just beginning to learn how to run creative firms” (McCord, 2014, p. 6).  McCord reports the development of a culture conducive to innovation is seen as a primary responsibility of Netflix leadership.  Netflix, as an organization, demonstrates a commitment to attracting the right people (knowledge) and fostering a culture that fosters innovation.

Interestingly, the Netflix philosophy that supports the people and culture, eschews formalized process.  According to the Netflix culture definition, process is only required when the complexity of the business exceeds the capability of the people (Hastings, 2009, slide 47).  Hastings declares process, while useful for avoiding the chaos of increasingly large organizations, a limit to the flexibility of the organization to adapt as the business environment changes.  The Netflix response is to drive the percentage of high-performance employees faster than the rise of business complexity to maintain an informal and adaptable organization.   The apparent success of this approach calls into question whether process is independent of people and culture.  It is possible an innovative culture, or superior human capital, mediates the necessity of formalized processes for the diffusion of innovation throughout the organization. It is also possible that Netflix either lacks the need for existential knowledge that would benefit from more formalized approaches to knowledge development (Wilson & Doz, 2011), or that Netflix is simply ignoring the benefits of more formalized knowledge development approaches.  Whether superior knowledge resources and culture mediates the need for more formalized processes is a provocative notion that simply underscores how little is known about how to achieve successful innovation.

References

Hastings, R. (2009). Netflix culture: Freedom & responsibility. Retrieved August 8, 2015, from http://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664

McCord, P. (2014). How Netflix reinvented HR. Harvard Business Review, (JAN-FEB). Retrieved from http://hbr.org/

Netflix. (2014). 2013 annual report. Retrieved from http://ir.netflix.com/

Ramachandran, S. (2014a, November 18). Netflix sets its sights down under. Wall Street Journal (Online). Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/

Ramachandran, S. (2014b, December 17). Dish Network to integrate Netflix app into its set-top boxes. Wall Street Journal (Online). Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/

Ramachandran, S. (2015, February 4). Netflix to launch in Japan. Wall Street Journal (Online). Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/

Ramachandran, S., & Stynes, T. (2015, January 20). Netflix steps up foreign expansion. Wall Street Journal (Online). Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/

Schwartz, F. (2015, February 9). Netflix offers streaming video in Cuba. Wall Street Journal (Online). Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/

Wilson, K., & Doz, Y. L. (2011). Agile innovation: A footprint balancing distance and immersion. California Management Review, 53(2), 6–26. http://doi.org/10.1525/cmr.2011.53.2.6