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Episode #1: Automation And The Future Of Work

In today’s podcast we interview Robert H. Brown, AVP, Center for the Future of Work at Cognizant

Throughout the world, in just about every industry imaginable, automation is eliminating more and more manual labor from processes that traditionally required human activity. Some sociologists & economists believe this changing reality will ultimately mean far-reaching changes for us as a society (basic income, redefining “full-time” employment, etc.). Robert H. Brown however, believes this digital transformation will create unprecedented new opportunities for those prepared to adapt.

The Center for the Future of Work is a think tank where Robert & his team study the impact that AI, automation, and other advances will have on the nature of work. Among the Center’s many videos & publications is a book entitled “What To Do When Machines Do Everything: How To Get Ahead In A World of AI, Algorithms, Bots, and Big Data”. Robert shares intriguing insights from this book about the digital transformation now taking place in the corporate environment, and how the future of work will not only be different, but far better.

Read Full Transcript

Guy: Welcome, everyone, to Intelligent Automation Radio. I’m your host, Guy Nadivi. Our guest today for our inaugural podcast of Intelligent Automation Radio is Robert H. Brown from the Center for the Future of Work, which is a Cognizant Technology Solutions think tank. Robert and his team spend a lot of time focused on the intersection of technology, people, and the jobs that are being profoundly impacted by advances in automation and AI. They’re uniquely positioned to provide insight on how businesses and jobs will be evolving in the digital economy.

Guy: With this in mind, and as we enter this brave new era of automation and artificial intelligence, what many are referring to as the 4th industrial revolution, we couldn’t think of a more appropriate guest to inaugurate our Intelligent Automation Radio podcast series with. Robert, welcome to the show.

Robert: Terrific. Thanks, Guy. It’s really good to be with you. Thanks for having me on today.

Guy: Robert, there’s a great quote from a German economist named Rudiger Dornbusch that’s often recycled, and I’m going to recite a common IT-specific version of it here for everyone. “In technology, things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.” This describes exactly what we’re seeing today with automation and AI, which has actually been around for decades, but only in really the last few years has it reached a level of maturity that’s allowed it to have some of the profound impact it’s having.

Guy: That’s affecting everything and just about everyone. What we want to start off talking about today is what will the future of work look like in the enterprise, and what key elements does it entail?

Robert: Yeah, that’s great. That’s a great, great, great place to start. I love your Rudiger quote. There’s variations on that theme from Bill Gates, who talks about we always underestimate the short-term, but overestimate the long-term impact of technology. I think of the Russian revolution. There were summations on that which was there are decades where nothing happens, and then there’s weeks where decades happen. When you boil it down to where we are right now, it’s very clear that the age of algorithms, automation, and AI is with us. The impact that employees are going to feel in terms of the future of work is going to be profound, and right now a lot of the current zeitgeist out in the popular media is it’s going to be an absolute disaster for jobs.

Robert: We are optimists. We think that far from it being a disaster for jobs, we could be looking at a real renaissance of employees being able to harness the power of automation, take away from of the drudgery in specific tasks that they’re doing within their current roles. To be sure, there’s going to be net new jobs that are created as a result of automation, as well. There will be some blood. There will be some pain. It won’t be nearly as dire as some of the prognosticators out there that are bandying around figures like 47% of US jobs will go up in a puff of smoke.

Robert: It’ll probably be somewhere less than 10% of jobs as we know them will go away, but the good news is, like we think about maybe something like a Twitter data wrangler, social media manager 10, 15 years ago, if I had said that would be the most in-demand role of the modern marketing function, you’d look at me like I was crazy. Net new jobs will be created in very technical roles, and there will also be a lot of job creation in jobs that harness the power of algorithms and AI, but at their heart are eminently technical. Excuse me, eminently human in the way that people deal with them.

Robert: There’s a lot to unpack in the big brush canvas that I just painted. We published our book, “What to Do When Machines Do Everything” last year, to a lot of positive acclaim, and a field guide, if you like, for practitioners of clients of Ayehu’s, of Cognizant, what they need to be thinking about as they do this long walk into the future of work, and how to deal with the change management of their strategies, their business processes, their IT processes, and ultimately if you’re an HR practitioner, how do you deal with the people change that has to go into that?

Guy: Yeah, I seem to recall that the CEO of Deutsche Bank said last year that if your job consists mostly of just mechanically moving paper and numbers around, your future career prospects are not very attractive, and your role is likely to get automated. This by the way is not specific to his bank, Deutsche Bank. It’s what he called a sector-wide phenomenon. Interestingly, though, he said they’re always talking internally about “upskilling” people’s jobs. “Upskilling” is a word I think people will be hearing a lot more of going forward.

Guy: What he meant by upskilling was that his employees would be adding more thinking and creativity to their roles because they wanted to increase the number of people facing clients, and reduce the number of people focused internally producing numbers, generating reports, et cetera. He states that their aim is to change what it means to be a banker by pushing more people to use more interpersonal skills, which is something that machines won’t be mastering anytime soon.

Robert: Yeah, that’s right. I think that in fact we tried to quantify that in a piece that we put together about a year and a half ago called “The Work Ahead”. One of the big findings that came out of that is, just to put a number around it, is that you need to be a better human by at least 15%. You may quibble with that and say, “What does that mean?” As a part of that survey, we asked over 2,000 business executives at or near the C suite that by the 2020s, what would be the top skills that they would require in their businesses?

Robert: For every single one of them, and I’ll just get rattling them off from most predominant all the way around the horn; analytical thinking, global operating skills, strategic thinking, leadership, innovation, decision-making, selling, customer care, learning. All of those things, all of those skills are eminently human skills. They’re not rote and repetitive paper-pushing skills, as he talked about. All of those will be in more demand as we go into the 2020s. Not a single one of them is diminishing in terms of requirement. I think to your point, those eminently human skills are going to be much more in demand.

Robert: How do you take away the rote and repetitive drudgery of some of the other things that people do in their jobs and help them double down on what it means to be a better human? Meanwhile in the business that you guys are in, Marc Andreessen has the great phrase that software is eating the world. I think what’s less appreciated as that plays out in the meantime is the impact that the new machines are going to have on the work processes that are at the heart of most big Fortune 500 companies or Fortune 1000 companies. That sort of middle and back office processes.

Robert: You can think about something like the finance department. From the biggest bank all the way down to a small mom and pop chain of pet shops in the greater Los Angeles area, you know that there’s people with skills in those companies that maybe know how to program an Excel macro, and if they have that skill set just being an Excel jockey, what’s to say that there aren’t online courses that might allow them to understand how to parlay those skills into something like Google TensorFlow, one of the biggest online AI platforms that’s out there, and maybe triple their salary as a result.

Robert: I think that’s where we are right now. What are the pathways? What are the change management models to show it may be scary? It may be scary as we enter this brave new world of the age of the algorithm, but how do you take that first step on that journey and start to move out of the way that we’ve always done things into the new way of things that will, again, allow people to offload some of those drudgery tasks and move into things that really help them double down on the skills that they’re great that? Machines are awesome at the science of the job.

Robert: Heavy computation, certainly analytics, next best actions, et cetera, but humans are innately good at what we would call the art of the job. That’s emotion, that’s empathy, it’s visual cues. Even if you think about a role like a lawyer and all the things that a lawyer has to use day in and day out in their job, or even a doctor. Let’s talk about medicine in a moment. I want to talk about what industries are going to be impacted by these changes, but there’s a lot that doctors and lawyers have to do that is inordinately about moving paper around.

Robert: Knowing my fair share of them, those that were able to sunset a lot of the drudgery of the paperwork and get facetime with clients, they would certainly be happier people and better in their roles. I think whether you’re a doctor or lawyer, or professional, or through the bell curve of mid-level management, all the way down to other skills. We can talk about truck drivers in a moment. That’s a big question mark that people have. What’s the impact on the future of work going to be for people that are in transportation? The advent of Uber or the driverless truck?

Robert: There is a whole raft of things that is going to allow people to do better at being better humans as opposed to lock into this mindset of, “I’m going to do this the way that I’ve always done it, including the rote and repetitive stuff.”

Guy: I really like that term, “the art of the job”. That might be a good title for the sequel to “What to Do When Machines Do Everything”.

Robert: That’s right.

Guy: Basically what you’re saying is everything is becoming an algorithm, and you’ve talked about how software is eating the world. I’ve also heard you say software eats process, which I think is a great phrase to describe how the automation platform is becoming the process. You’ve also discussed previously in the other venues that processes have melting points where, once automated, you don’t need as many people working the process. I think a lot of people listening would be very interested to hear from you. What are the major areas of transformation that you’re seeing in the enterprise today where intelligent automation and orchestration are rising as a major business imperative with enterprises around the globe?

Robert: Yeah, great question. It’s funny because people that are probably listening to this podcast are pretty well informed people and paying attention to the headlines. If you’re paying attention to the headlines, you are certainly seeing a world of many, many possibilities when it comes to automation. All of the buzzwords that are out there, whether it’s RPA, or speech to text conversion, or NLP, AI, machine learning, right? All of them point to a similar conclusion, that processes as we know them are increasingly being executed by code in complementary roles to people, and not necessarily replacing people, but in complement to people.

Robert: In fact, the first white paper that I wrote when I came to Cognizant was called the Robot and I, which was a take on, you know the old dystopian book and film I, Robot. The more I looked at what was happening with RPA, it was pretty clear that it was more like a “King and I” scenario, so I chose the goofy title the “Robot and I” to illustrate that this is about people working with machines as opposed to being replaced by them. The list goes on and on. You got world of IoT, I’ve got emotional recognition that’s coming. The way that we think about this at Cognizant, to get to the heart of your question, which is major areas of transformation, we think it’s a continuum that moves from systems that do to systems that think, and then to systems that learn.

Robert: You can think about systems that do being things like script-based RPA. We’re just replicating the repetitive human actions that are basically, the mission there is to make the swivel chair process obsolete. I think a lot of people, again, thinking about middle and back office processes of their companies, they see them everywhere. It’s the people that are looking at two, three, four multiple screens, and literally bridging that last mile of data integration across a variety of systems. The big irony of ERP was it was about connecting islands of information.

Robert: Here we are 25 years down the road, and people, humans are effectively having to be a robot to bridge that last mile. That’s just the systems that do piece. In fact, Leslie Wilcox is a professor at London School of Economics who wrote a wonderful book on automation with Mary Lacity from the University of Missouri. Wilcox has a great quote which says, “It’s time to take the robot out of the human.” I couldn’t agree with that sentiment even more. Again, in this world of algorithms and AI, progressively companies are thinking about systems that think, systems that learn. I think pretty quickly, we’re going to get to an advanced automation world of systems that adapt, particularly when we think about natural language processing.

Robert: Across that whole spectrum of systems that do, think, and learn, it’s pretty apparent that you can slot in lots of different business processes, whether from a systems that do perspective, things like claims processing, or account payable and receivable. We talked about FNA a moment ago. Data consolidation or validation. Then as you move up the path to systems that think and learn where you’re looking at customer service support, or how do you optimize a retail engagement system, or virtual service agent? Make no mistake, the business that you guys are in, in IT, IT is a process that has a wonderful distinction of being the one function in any business that cuts horizontally across all of the silos.

Robert: If you’re looking at troubleshooting and triaging incidents, or using automation to do auto response to tickets, or run SQL queries and reports, those kinds of things, IT is in the cat bird seat to make these changes towards greater digitization of the business possible. The way you boil that down on a bumper sticker is a lot of companies talk about doing digital at the margins, and the big challenge for a lot of them in a world of melting points and Uber and Amazon and Facebook and all the rest is how do we move from doing digital to being digital?

Robert: That is the $64,000 strategic question over the next three to five years for any business. Guy: In that do-think-learn-adapt cycle, all of which you’re saying is primarily going to augment humans on the art of the job, how would you say that enterprises can best leverage AI and machine learning to maintain a competitive advantage in this rapidly-changing landscape? What are some of the impacts that you’re seeing today along those lines? Robert: I think the way to think about this is really a world of systems of intelligence. Again, we talk about that spectrum of systems that do, think, and learn. I’m an old Gartner analyst. I was an analyst for many, many years, head of business process services research at Gartner. They coined the term “systems of record”. All of your backend ERP systems. Even things like Salesforce, Workday, Oracle. Systems of record then gave way to “systems of engagement”. That’s your Facebook, your Twitters, Instagrams, and so forth. Now we’re making pretty rapidly into “systems of intelligence”.

Robert: That might be something like GE’s Predix platform, or things like what McGraw-Hill is doing with their ALEKS platform. Palantir would be a good example. At Cognizant, we have our BigDecisions platform for big data analysis. All of that movement from systems of record, engagement, intelligence, it nicely correlates to systems that do, think, and learn. I think on the point of how can enterprises best leverage these technologies to maintain competitive advantage is to realize that they need to get going. It is a spectrum. Companies need to take the first plunge into that pool of a more progressively automated world.

Robert: A lot of people that are going to be listening to this podcast, I’m sure all of them having gotten the memo on RPA software, are probably running pilots, maybe doing full production around that. It’s a great place to start, just from a simple rote and repetitive systems that do perspective. Now, I’m seeing use cases in every industry out there where companies are rethinking the art of the possible. I was at an event last week where a very large bank in Asia Pacific was doing reverse engineering.

Robert: For all of their customers that rated their service a 7 out of 7 on the net promoter score scale, looking at all the ones that come out as a 7, and using automation and AI to trace those customers’ steps on their journey through their customer interaction systems and say, “Okay, if the bell curve of a 7 customer generally looks like a journey like this, how do we take the remainder, and look at our processes, and engineer them to flow through these types of approaches as a best practice?” I think that’s a really cool example.

Robert: Again, if we think about processes that are melting, how do you use AI and automation as a Bunsen burner to turn up the flame and realize there may be things that we are doing simply because since the merger and acquisition five, seven years ago, we just haven’t had time to think of a better way. There’s opportunities all over the organization. Another way to think about this is like Pac-Man, chewing through all the dots on a Pac-Man screen. You can use the low-hanging fruit of RPA systems to cut through all that fat in the back end of the business, and then use those cost savings which are pretty substantial to double down on true digital transformation within the enterprise.

Robert: There may be some processes that just have to be eliminated or rethought entirely. That’s to your point where we talk about the platform becoming the process and rethinking the way that that work is done. That’s where the Center for the Future of Work comes into the frame. If you rethink the work, you rethink the work process, you rethink the business process. If you rethink the business process, you can rethink the strategy for the firm. I’ll give you a couple of other examples. We really start to take this out to systems that learn and adapt. There is some amazing groundbreaking work that’s going on in the healthcare sector that Google research has been on the forefront of where they can spot tumors in prostate cancer patients at a fractal level of early detection.

Robert: Far beyond the best radiologist ever being able to spot those things with the naked eye. My father-in-law is an oncologist. They’ve been using some of the same five-layer testing procedures going back to the early ’60s, and now with this breakthrough in what’s happening with some of the things that Google has been on top of, if your dad or my dad may be sick with prostate cancer, choose the approach that you want. I would want my money on some of those early detection things through AI every day and twice on Sunday. We may get to a point in the not-too-distant future where a radiologist or an oncologist that isn’t using these tools could be guilty of malpractice.

Robert: Another great one, again, I’ll stay close to the medical field, just because it’s really … You think about people being sick and healing people, it’s work that matters, for sure. Apparently the number one burnout factors for doctors is paperwork. We talked about this a little bit a while ago. Through the advent of things like augmented reality, in fact there is a startup here in San Francisco called AUGMEDIX, which uses Google Glass in conjunction with a natural language processing engine so that the nurse or doctor can be in the examination room with a patient talking to them. “Guy, how do you feel today? What’s going on with you? Et cetera.”

Robert: All of that data is being positioned into the electronic medical records through an NLP engine. All the doctor has to do on the back end of that is just take a quick look at it, make sure that all the fields have populated correctly, and then press enter. We talk about electronic medical records being a breakthrough a decade ago. In fact, they weren’t, because they substituted a tablet for a piece of paper, but it did not fundamentally change the work. If you’re looking at systems like this, which is allowing a doctor with a great bedside manner to have more in-theater time with the patient, talk about the patient, what’s happening.

Robert: Again, we go back to the art of the job and the science of the job. That is eminently where doctors want to be focusing their attention and their energies. Not the paperwork. I think that’s another good example of where we’re seeing some of these impacts today from a future of work perspective. Then in playing the long game. Funny thing about the future of work is it’s always in the future. Starting tomorrow, next year, three years, five years, ten years. I’ll do a shameless plug for one of our most recent reports, which actually did try to forecast ten years into the future. It’s called “21 Jobs of the Future”. When we wrote “What to Do When Machines Do Everything”, people loved the book.

Robert: They said, “Look, you guys say there’s going to be all these jobs in the future. What exactly are they?” 21 Jobs of the Future attempts to break that down and give a peek into what we may be seeing. Again, low-tech jobs and high-tech jobs that are going to precipitate from these changes. It’s funny. Since we wrote that around December time frame, the more I scan the wires and talk to people that are out there in the industry, it’s interesting. It’s like, “Wow, I spotted one in the wild. This isn’t too fanciful.” These jobs actually are starting to come to fruition, so that’s pretty exciting, too.

Guy: Yeah. You’ve talked about you and your team about all the net new jobs that will be created. There are going to be some that are going to be lost, and then there are going to be a whole bunch of new ones created, and the net result will be more jobs, which is something that when the scary numbers are touted by analysts, they never mention about the new jobs that don’t exist now. Tell us and the audience – what are the top 3 most interesting new jobs of the future that don’t exist now?

Robert: Pick three, just distilling it down to the top three. I’ve done a lot of research the last year, year and a half on augmented reality and virtual reality, and actually done a lot of thinking about how you would apply those technologies to rethinking a business process from start to stop, particularly ones that involve people moving through time and space. One of the ones I’m really excited about is what we’ve called the AR Journey Builder, the Augmented Reality Journey Builder. You can imagine for any customer-facing process of people moving through time and space, there’s going to be a legion of people that are going to need to team together and build out, curate, and/or suggest next steps, et cetera that are highly, highly personalized to those individuals.

Robert: That’s really where the role of the AR Journey Builder is going to step into the frame. There’s a lot of buildout that needs to make that happen. There’s going to be people that are going to need to instrument the physical world with points of presence, geolocation mapping technology. There’s going to need to be people that think about setting, mood, information, tone, characters, suggested things or experiences that people are going to want to buy. There’s a cinematic element to it, too. You could imagine, say you’re sitting in your morning commute. Let’s say you are a fan of Game of Thrones or Star Wars or Harry Potter. Jane Austen period immersions.

Robert: Imagine then being able through the work of something, maybe like a Pandora for AR type of platform, AR Journey Builders would swarm into that and create and put that type of content out. You’re already starting to see that with what’s happening with the gaming community, which is really on the vanguard of how media and entertainment is changing very, very quickly. To boil it down, you think about AR Journey Builders. The way we thought about it is they would be the 21st century successors to brick layers and playwrights and composers of a century ago.

Robert: Experience composers, or data overlayers, or CX rights, or UX rights. I’ve been doing a lot … That’s one. Rattle off a couple others really quickly. I’ve also been doing a lot of research recently in the wake of Cambridge Analytica, the #DeleteFacebook movement, all of the concerns about privacy that’s been going on, and what companies need to think about moving into the future. Another job that we’re really excited about is the Chief Trust Officer. GDPR legislation makes the role of a data protection officer now mandatory for companies of a certain size. The way that we’ve thought about a Chief Trust Officer role is a higher level.

Robert: It’s somebody that’s at the C-suite of the company who, yes, data protection and privacy are absolutely essential fuel in the gas tank of making trust work, but this is absolutely focused on preserving the trust of the firm. I think you’re going to see a lot more focus on that moving forward in the future. Then maybe just to give an example of a job that is low-tech, but we’re going to see a lot of need for with the aging of the population, we have a job that is called a Walker-Talker. The idea of a Walker-Talker is you can imagine an AI platform that allows continuity of care for seniors. A lot of seniors are reclusive. They’re shut into their houses or their nursing homes all day, every day.

Robert: For those that have the fortune of still being in their own homes, sometimes if they journey out to the post box to get their mail, that might be the only time they ever actually interact with a human if they’re widowed or a widower. The idea of a Walker-Talker, it’s like if you’ve heard of visiting angels, that may be a good example that we have today. This is more about somebody who’s job isn’t to just check in on the elderly, but to actually engage them. Talking to them. Again, AI platform might have a suggestive listening agent where there’s, again, continuity of care. Maybe another agent was with the individual a couple of days ago.

Robert: What do they talk about? What subjects was the individual keen to discuss? Providing that continuity of care. You can even imagine that that platform giving suggested prompts to help the Walker-Talker really engage that individual. Then on the walking part, for people that are ambulatory, maybe they’ve got a pet. It’s just a matter of getting with that person, and walking around the block with them, and talking all the while. In fact, the way that we thought about the job and the role as the ratio here is, it’s 10-parts listening and 1-part talking. For all of us that have aging parents, and maybe aren’t living in the same area, certainly the same house as them in the future, you can see a real need for these types of skills.

Robert: Again, it’s a skill set that is eminently based on the art of the job and what humans bring to the equation.

Guy: Wow. Amazing. AR Journey Builder, Chief Trust Officer, Walker-Talker. As the Chinese say, may you live in interesting times.

Robert: That’s right. Let’s see. If I do my math right, there’s 18 more in the report. Yeah, people should check it out. Also, just again, maybe watch the wires. We’re working on “21 More Jobs of the Future” later on this year, so stay tuned.

Guy: Amazing, amazing. It’s just proof that progress is an unstoppable locomotive train. Its forward motion is relentless, regardless of whatever temporary delays might side-track it along the way. I would say to our audience you want to be on that train, not watching it pull away as it leaves your station. I would argue that when it comes to the unrelenting progress being made today by the automation and AI train, one of the best classes of seats, the business class seats if you will, is occupied by the people bringing in the automation to their organizations.

Guy: The people doing the automating have a far better chance of a long and prosperous journey on that train than the ones resisting automation, who will likely be automated our or possibly automated out or asked by the conductor to get off at the next stop, so to speak. My advice for today’s listeners, those pondering what’s the best way to play the automation and AI wave career-wise, become an automation expert. Take your seat for what’s going to be one of the great rides of the early 21st century. All right, well, it looks like that’s all the time we have for today. Robert, I have really enjoyed speaking with you and would very much like for you to join us again down the road.

Robert: Great. Thanks so much, Guy. I really appreciate the time. Thanks so much for having me.

Guy: Robert H. Brown from the Center for the Future of Work, a Cognizant Technology Solutions think tank. Thank you for listening, everyone, and remember – don’t hesitate, automate.

Robert H Brown

Robert H. Brown

AVP, Center for the Future of Work at Cognizant Technology Solutions

Robert Hoyle Brown is an Associate Vice-President in Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work. Since joining Cognizant in 2014, he has specialized on the topics of robotics, automation and augmented reality and their impact on business processes. He has worked extensively with the Cognizant Digital Operations practice as head of market strategy, and also with Cognizant’s Accelerator leadership to drive the development of its intelligent automation strategy, messaging and go-to-market outreach. Prior to joining Cognizant, he was Managing Vice-President of the Business and Applications Services team at Gartner, and as a research analyst, he was a recognized subject matter expert in BPO. He also held roles at Hewlett-Packard and G2 Research, a boutique outsourcing research firm in Silicon Valley. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley and, prior to his graduation, attended the London School of Economics as a Hansard Scholar.

Robert can be found at:


Twitter: @robthbrow


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