Automation Technology: Machines at Work


I am excited to bring you a three-part series on reimagining the design of work. In each part we will look at different aspects of how humans and machines can now better work together:
-    Part 1: The changing design of business and our ability to break work down into tasks and micro-tasks.
-    Part 2: The roles of crowdsourcing, business architecture, and social business architecture in redesigning work.
-    Part 3: An example of humans and machines working together using crowd computing and a discussion of its impact.

If you’ve ever read or watched any science fiction, you’ve probably dreamed of a day when machines will free us from some of life’s mundane tasks.

Companies dream of that, too. Witness their eagerness to outsource job functions — or, even more recently, whole business processes — to third parties, either onshore or offshore.

Hackers and spammers have become quite adept at programming their machines to send emails or attempt to break through security around the clock, around the globe. We have built automated factories, interactive voice response systems, and all kinds of other ways to put machines to work for us.

Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, has a simple framework from his treatise on design thinking, “The Design of Business,” that shows how a knowledge or work area evolves as we learn more.

At first, the piece of knowledge or work is something that is mysterious and performed in an ad hoc way by experts. We then start to observe the patterns (or heuristics), and eventually the work or knowledge is well-understood and can be reduced to an algorithm or set of best practices performed by lower-skilled employees, and possibly even implemented as a piece of code to be executed by a robot or computer.

Source: The Design of Business by Roger Martin

But, as alluded to earlier, companies have not only become more comfortable with designing work to be executed by machines instead of employees, but also more amenable to many kinds of work being completed by people outside the organization, including:

  1. Entire job functions performed by contractors or outsourcing firms. The global outsourcing market was $95 billion in 2011.
  2. Whole business processes. The 2011 market for business process outsourcing firms was in excess of $11 billion.
  3. Projects or initiatives done by outside consultants.
  4. Discrete tasks, such as logo design, via marketplace sites such as 99Designs and Crowdspring.
  5. Micro-tasks, such as tagging an image or providing the search rank for a URL, via sites such as Amazon Mechanical Turk.

The Right Work for Machines

Over time, we’ve moved from simple machines, like a forklift, that help humans to do more, to machines and robots capable of completing a whole task, like painting a car or making an exact copy of a document. Has anyone seen a want ad for a scribe lately?

Meanwhile, our fully automated manufacturing and packaging plants use machines to complete an entire process. But machines aren’t suitable for every kind of work. They are appropriate for tasks that are well defined and repeated as part of a standardized process, but not a fit for tasks that require judgment, particularly those with numerous exceptions, variability, or personalization.

As a result, machines and robots have been relegated most often to the production areas of a business, places where it has been easy to define specific tasks or even whole processes that can be designed for machines or robots to own and complete 24/7/365 if necessary.



The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

About The Author

Braden Kelley

B2B Pull Marketing Strategist, Innovation Speaker and Trainer, Innovation Speaker

Braden Kelley is the author of “Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire” and has been advising companies on how to increase their revenue and cut their costs...

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