We’ve had robot workers for years, it’s time to focus on their humanity

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If you analyse the work most knowledge workers perform, it is repetitive. The decisions they have to make, and the actions they take are prescribed to them. Someone in the business has already worked out what they need to do and documented it in some product, policy, or process manual. Their job is not to think. It is to do. It is to follow the process, and get it right in a consistent, compliant and context-relevant way.

To prepare people for this work, we put them through an education system that is designed to deliver conforming humans whose brains have been pre-coded by socially approved knowledge. This knowledge is not to be questioned. It is to be learned. Learning is about memorising given facts, and repeating them back in tests. Good students are those who learn our formulas quickest and who can best apply these formulas to different scenarios.

When they then join our organisations, we do the same thing. We code their brains with our specific company formula. We ask them to upload our rules into their brains using training, and then we test the upload using assessments. We know they will forget most of the code we upload, and so we offer them a knowledge base to reference when they do. 

Then we set them loose, and spend significant organisational energy double-checking their work. We build in system checks and quality assurance reviews. We schedule regular ‘refreshers’ and keep sending rule updates via e-mail in the hope they will version control their brains. To motivate them to do this, we invest significant resources on change management.

The truth is that we treat people like robots. We don’t really want them to think for themselves. We just want them to apply our formula accurately, every time, just the way we designed it.  The problem is people are not mindless robots. They are individuals with their own unique brain hardware, each performing off a slightly different operating system. This operating system is shaped by biology, past experiences, instilled values and personality lenses. Not everyone sees the world the same way. 

We don’t learn the same way. And we certainly don’t behave the same way. Unless of course we are placed into a system specifically designed to beat the ‘individual’ out of us. Conformist systems like Nazi Germany; North Korea or even Apartheid South Africa. Come to think of it, most organisations are conformist systems, whether they acknowledge it or not. Efficiency requires it. The only difference is that regulation requires us to treat our staff fairly. Competition for human resources also encourages greater use of reward rather than punishment systems for behavioural reinforcement. Either way, our organisational systems are designed to reinforce conformity to an approved behavioural and decision-making formula.    

The Digital Era offers us a way out. A way to reclaim our lost humanity. It gives us the opportunity to transfer this doer role to a digital worker, ‘someone’ who specialises in formula replication. This means wherever a decision or action needs to be taken based on a prescribed formula, we can hand this over to a digital worker. This then frees us up to think more, dream more and create more. It shifts our role away from replication and into creation. 

Digital workers are already taking over major parts of organisational work. Robotic Process Automation bots are increasing performing system-based work. Other digital workers are taking over the responsibility to ensure customers are asked the right questions, offered the right answers and that the right actions are triggered, based on relevant front-office processes. 

For staff, this is transforming their roles. In contact centres, agents are being asked to specialise in multi-cultural customer conversations while their digital team mates worry about process compliance and system execution. It allows staff to focus on customer conversations while trusting the navigational guidance of their digital colleagues.

Soon any decision or action that is prescribed by rules will be done by digital workers. These colleagues will free us up to add value, not simply replicate. The challenge we now face is to work out what this value looks like. Our brains are trained to think out of the box, to innovate and create. It’s hard to change. But with chance comes the opportunity to reclaim our humanity, and to re-awake.


Ryan Falkenberg is co-founder and co-CEO of CLEVVA, a technology that allows companies to build a Digital Expert capable of powering all staff-assisted and digital channels.