Leadership in the Age of Automation

To say that we live in uncertain times is an understatement. From Artificial Intelligence (AI) to robotics to Supercomputing to the ubiquity of the Internet, technology has been revolutionising the way we live our lives and run our businesses. Automation is changing the way we run businesses and pushing us to relook how we run business and engage with our people. As Klaus Schwab has articulated beautifully in his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, ‘The changes are so profound that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril.’

What does this mean for organisations? Especially given the quantum of change that technology is bringing to the way businesses are run. On one hand, you need to convince customers that you are acting in their best interest, deploying the very best solutions possible with the most cutting-edge technology. On the other hand, the internal audience, your employees, need to be convinced that you’re acting in their best interest, and not working on making them redundant.

Two areas that leaders should focus on:

  • Self – An introspection of what as an individual should the leader change.
  • System – How the systems around them are changing and what changes in direction and operations should be brought about

Changing the ‘Self’-

This difficult balancing act calls for a strong leader with an independent and holistic thinking – Balancing the impact of people, process and profit. Leaders need to be able to discern facts from noise, and not get carried away by the hype. While the fundamentals of leadership don’t change, today’s dynamic environment does demand a certain mindset orientation. One quality that a leader needs is the ability to internalize the fact that change is, in fact, happening. Based on this change, establish what they should be changing to manage the business outcomes better. The second is to keep a close eye on the ‘human experience’ aspect of this change. Their actions will clearly define what people around them experience and what is it they need to do to enable people around them.

Changing the Approach

Here are some things that leaders can do in these unpredictable times:

Focus on ground realities: In the information age, where we’re constantly bombarded with news and opinions, it’s sometimes difficult to focus on facts. When it comes to AI and automation, the real fact is that while people may speculate all they want, no one really knows what the impact will be. In all probability, while automation will make some jobs redundant; it is far more likely to change the way we do most jobs. There was a recent McKinsey article that did a good common-sense analysis on how automation will affect jobs in the near term. Like the article rightly points out, technical feasibility is just one of the factors that determine whether or not a job will be automated. Other factors such as cost and regulatory or social acceptance issues play an equally important role. Just because something can be automated doesn’t mean that it makes sense to automate it.

Prepare to Execute for the future: While the future may be uncertain in terms of technology, there are some values that are timeless. Building an organisation that is nimble, culturally strong, dynamic and aligned to overall business goals should be the focus of every leader. Once you have decided what to change in your strategy, your ability to execute that strategy is what will determine your success or failure. Focusing on the basics of a great organisation will certainly hold you in good stead.

Equip and Support Your People: No matter which way your organisation heads in the future, your people will play the most important role in enabling this change. Invest in building the right skills and culture so you have an organisation that is capable, scalable and dynamic. And, in this time of change standing behind your people and enabling them to make transitions in the right way is needed.

The changes that automation and AI will eventually bring are uncertain, but with the right mindset and leadership, organisations can tide over this change too!