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From factory to curiosity: How to make automation work for us

22 November 2018


Sam Handfield-Jones, product director at Octopus Labs, wonders whether we can take advantage of the automation revolution.

In a stable, slow changing world with rules, parameters and a clear way of doing things, maintaining the process and ensuring the factory lines of life continue to run is critical.

I don’t mean a factory in the literal sense, but any system that requires the repetition of a task to achieve an end goal. I would say that pretty much all modern professional jobs fall within this category.

Components in a machine

For these systems to work, you need a strict hierarchy and control over each cog within that system, in order to ensure that they all turn at the same time and in the same rhythm.

As soon as one cog stops, or goes the other way, or speeds up, or changes size, or doesn’t turn up at all, the whole system falls apart.

You really do not want your cogs trying new ways of turning. The entire system relies on controlling the way they turn and it’s just not worth the risk. Institutions, whether we mean the military, audit firms, law practice all fit within this.

But things are changing. And things have a habit of creeping into our lives without us really noticing. We see them, yes. But we don’t see the potential implications.

Think of things such as self-driving cars and planes, Amazon Echo, Siri, your spam filter. All of these are examples of processes and actions being replaced by computers.

Even further than that, today we are treading the line of not just automating manual processes. We have been doing that for thousands of years.

  • We built stone tools to speed up hammering
  • We rolled the Stonehenge rocks on tree trunks, so we could roll more with less
  • We built factory lines to spin more yarn with less effort

Today, people are talking about and working on automating thinking and presence. Self-reflection and philosophy. If that doesn’t scare you. It should. That’s what defines us as humans.

There are of course far smarter people thinking and writing about this, but I’m with Elon Musk — artificial intelligence will have a far-reaching and unprecedented impact on humanity and the world we live in. I hope this impact will be for the good.

Perhaps the world is changing faster than we appreciate. But we, as humans, are not very good at sensing the velocity of change.

Tactical vs strategic thinking

Thanks to millions of years of evolution we have been programmed through to focus on the now.

For most of the time that humans have walked the earth, all that mattered was making sure we made it through to the end of the day.

So, although sometimes I feel that making it through the day (with some good food as a bonus) is enough, if I reflect on any given week or day, I spend a fraction of my time thinking about the past or the future.

And with only one reference point (the present), it’s impossible to measure velocity or acceleration.

The future, imperfect

In order to understand the speed of change, you need to constantly be referencing multiple points in the past and the present, and using those to help predict the future.

We aren’t very good at this, and we aren’t preparing ourselves for what the future has in store for us.

So, what will happen when we are no longer just cogs anymore?

What will happen when all the cogs in the system are automated?

It will be a time when accountants are no longer spending their time reconciling numbers, when lawyers are no longer reviewing legal documents looking for certain phrases, when pilots don’t have to worry about steering the plane, and when surgeons are no longer undertaking invasive surgical procedures.

But what will these professionals be doing instead?

Of course, I’ve got no idea. But from a practical perspective, I can share my experience so far at Octopus.

Automation and simplification

On a regular basis, here at Octopus we are always looking at what we want to build next, and we always try and have a percentage of our resources aimed at automating things.

This makes us more efficient and less prone to error. When processes are automated you can start collecting data on how they are performing, it allows you to see risks and opportunities in closer to real time.

And, over time as you collect more data, this information allows you to predict risks and opportunities, hopefully well in advance of them catching you out.

This isn’t new. it’s just relatively new in the professional workplace. It means we are spending less and less time on processes and more and more time on thinking and asking questions.

It also brings all the functions much closer together. Technology, design, sales, marketing gradually start to overlap as the manual processes start to disappear.

So here are three things I think can set us up in the short term to take advantage of these changes:

Data and analytics everywhere

In most careers, it’s the manual processes that we follow that define the roles we do.

As large chunks of those processes are automated you are left with one constant. Data.

To take advantage of this people need to think about data and analysis as they think about Microsoft Word today. Everyone will use it.

In every function. And data should never be just a team within your company.

Customer success is a data role, Marketing is a data role, Finance is a data role, Legal is a data role, Operations is a data role, Risk & Compliance is a data role.

Everyone needs to be comfortable with this in order to add the most value.

Curiosity counts

With so many processes automated, and so much data being created, we need to be asking more and more questions.

Why is this happening, how is this happening, can we predict what could, should or would happen? These questions are becoming far more valuable. And far easier to find answers for.

This needs to be encouraged, both at work and in your teams. Who can come up with insight or a question that we don’t have an answer to yet? Best question of the week.

This should become the essence of work and when paired with Data skills from above people are able to not only ask but also answer their own questions. The network effects of having the whole company thinking like this can be very powerful.

Asking – and answering – lots of small questions every day, in a forum where the answers are shared with everyone, builds a powerful foundation of knowledge.

A matter of trust

With all the cogs running without us, we are free to innovate, try new things, ask new questions without worrying that the factory line will break down.

In fact, the only way to stay competitive in such a fast-moving world is to do this. Speed is key.

The problem is the typical factory models, with large hierarchies and a few key decision makers, were designed to prevent change. Their primary purpose was to prevent people from doing things differently.

The factory line relied on everyone keeping within their defined parameters. That’s the model most companies still operate under.

We need to be more comfortable relinquishing control, adopting flatter working structures and empowering people to challenge the status quo.

Otherwise, you rely on a few key people to make decisions. And they will, without fail, become a bottleneck. In order for this to work you need to trust the people, you work with more than ever.

The alternative, of course, is that all this thinking will be automated as well.