Man meets machine – A human touch

From apocalyptic movies about machines destroying humans to hyperbolic headlines about job losses, if popular media is to be believed, digital transformation spells bad news for humanity.

But a people-first approach offers the best chance for digital transformation in businesses, where humans and machines co-exist, to enhance the workplace experience and improve bottom line.

Knowledge and fear

Given the pace at which new technology is being introduced into the workplace, ensuring human-centred change should be a pressing priority for companies.

A recent survey from Gartner revealed that 37 per cent of organisations have implemented artificial intelligence in some form – a rise of 270 per cent over four years.1

Yet there seems to be a disconnect between the perceptions of the C-suite and employees when it comes to introducing new technology. According to research from PwC, 90 per cent of C-suite executives agree that their company pays attention to people’s needs when introducing new technology – compared with only 53 per cent of staff. 2

Certainly, change can be frightening. But it’s important to recognise that fear is often driven by a lack of knowledge of technology, and an understanding of how and where a company will implement it. People-centred communication is critical.

“The more people can be conversant on a topic and the more they can understand it, the less scary it becomes,” said Heidi Toribio, Global Head, Financial Institutions at Standard Chartered. “But they also see how they can apply that to their work situation and be part of that digital transformation.”

To tackle the knowledge gap, Standard Chartered offers its workforce education in new technologies, such as distributed ledger technology and natural language processing. Even companies that have been at the vanguard of digital transformation recognise the need to enhance staff literacy in new technologies. Amazon, for example, plans to spend USD700 million over the next six years to train 100,000 of its workforce in new technology skills.3

Not the enemy

In a people-first approach, it’s important for leaders to emphasise that technology has the ability to enhance job satisfaction, by demonstrating how increasing automation frees up staff to focus on true value-add activities. These activities, such as generating ideas, solving problems and engaging with clients, has obvious  positive efficiency implications for such companies.

In a recent report, Accenture suggested that technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) is best when used in collaboration with humans – or to help humans generate better outcomes. The report provided the example of doctors at Harvard that created an AI technique to detect breast cancer cells. It scored 92 per cent accuracy, but fell short of human pathologists, who typically achieved precision rates of around 96 per cent. But importantly, when humans and AI combined forces, the detection rate rose to 99.5 per cent.4

HP Inc (previously known as Hewlett Packard) offers another example. The company analysed two years’ worth of data from an Asian telecommunications client to identify individual call centre agents’ unique ‘micro-skills’. This information was then used to match callers to the best agent for their request. Using AI in this way resulted in a 40 per cent improvement in first-contact resolution, and a 50 per cent reduction in the rate of callers who needed to be transferred to another agent.5

New technology can also reduce employee accidents and exposure to dangerous working environments. Take the case of Hyundai Motors. The Korean car manufacturer is creating exoskeletons – wearable robotics – to reduce strain and fatigue in assembly line workers who have jobs that require a lot of arm lifting.6

Installing a digital mindset

Ensuring the human workforce is not left behind also requires companies to “unlearn a number of habits” according to Alex Manson, Head of SC Ventures, Standard Chartered’s innovation, investment and ventures unit. Approaches that help create a digital mindset include emphasising creativity over efficiency (so that workers are encouraged to experiment and suggest new ideas), and accepting failure as the price of trying something new, said Manson.7

And when it comes to changing company culture, it’s also important to engage early and often with staff, said Toribio.

“Engagement and education of employees are not just about understanding the technology – it’s also about giving people a digital and transformative mindset, as that is what will allow them to flourish as we continue to change,” she explained.

However, a 2019 survey from Microsoft illustrates how difficult it can be to shift a company’s culture. More than half of Asia Pacific business leaders and workers surveyed believe that cultural traits that support the use of AI, such as risk taking, proactive innovation and cross-function partnerships among teams, are not pervasive today.8

One way Standard Chartered is fostering a new mindset among employees is through its SC Innovate platform. Here, employees can submit ideas that could go into production, with entries shortlisted and obtaining seed funding through ‘crowd voting’.

During 2018, the scheme received over 15,000 sign-ups with a total of 1,235 ideas submitted across eight challenges. Ideas from Standard Chartered ‘intrapreneurs’ being put into action include a proof of concept for Singapore’s ‘Credit Card Buddy’ in another market.9

By fostering a digital mindset throughout the organisation, companies can forge a virtuous innovation cycle — idea generation creates more opportunities for employees to co-create on technology, which leads to more ideas (not to mention new sources of revenue).

Digital transformation is not the end of humans in the workplace. Driven from the very top of an organisation, it’s an opportunity for companies to create a more engaged, creative and productive workforce. But companies can only truly reap the benefits of new technology – and improve profitability — if they put people first.


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