What’s happening this week at the intersection of management and technology.
When to hire a robot: Robotics have reached their tipping point, according to International Data Corp. In a newly-released research report, the firm forecasts a near doubling of the worldwide robotics market over the next 4 years — from $71 billion in 2015 to $135.4 billion in 2019. Almost simultaneously, President Obama sent The Annual Report of the Council of Economic Advisors to Congress. It says advances in robotics technology are “presaging the rise of a potentially paradigm-shifting innovation in the productivity process.”
Tongue-twisting alliteration aside, this feeds fears that robots may eventually replace most employees (a thesis argued persuasively by Mark Ford in his award-winning book, Rise of the Robots). But how should your company use robotics between now and then? One answer, highlighted in two recent stories, is to hire robots for supporting, rather than primary, roles.
Mercedes-Benz came to this conclusion in a backward sort of way. As the company expanded the number of models and options it offers, it discovered that its existing assembly-line robots could not be adapted quickly and economically enough. So it’s hiring people to replace some of its robots, report Elisabeth Behrmann and Christoph Rauwald in BloombergBusiness, and equipping them “with an array of little machines,” a solution that the car maker calls “robot farming.”
Mark Rolston, the cofounder and chief creative officer of argodesign, sees the design industry following a similar strategy. “It’s easy to see how an AI-infused computer algorithm such as the future Netflix — after a human has completed the initial design and programming — could do the hard work of improving and evolving to accommodate user preferences largely on its own,” he writes in Fast Company’s Co.Design. “Moreover, 90% of product design today happens in the ‘fat middle ground’ between purely aesthetic and purely technical — incrementally tweaking designs, optimizing column widths, and experimenting with color schemes. These tasks are bread and butter for much of the design industry, and they are progressively being automated.”
Shall we play a game? Whether or not you buy the thesis that Millennials require a new kind of management, their lifelong exposure to video games certainly makes them prime fodder for the gamification of the workplace. Emily Matchar does a good job of surveying the state of games at work for Smithsonian.com. She concludes that on-the-job gaming is likely to become even more commonplace in coming years.
Steve Bates, who reports on the maturation of workplace games on the website of the Society of Human Resource Management, concurs. He sees gamification being applied to training and other learning activities, to team-building and boosting employee collaboration and engagement, and to employee motivation and productivity, particularly in areas like sales and customer service.
But both writers suggest that you may want to wait a while longer before you leap into gamification. Matchar reminds us that poorly-designed games can do more harm than good — even at companies like Disney that you might think would have it down pat. And Bates warns, “How well [gamification] works is difficult to prove. Gamification vendors and consultants tout the successes they see in companies. Academics raise caution flags, noting that rigorous investigation into the effectiveness of gamification is lacking.”
Digitization is a strong focus at fast-growing middle-market companies: If your company’s revenues are between $10 million and $1 billion, take a look at a new study from the National Center for the Middle Market and Magento Commerce. It reveals a correlation between digitization and growth: Forty-nine percent of fast-growing U.S. middle market companies define themselves as “digitally advanced” versus 36% of all middle-market firms surveyed.
If you find that your company ranks among the less digitally advanced, you can take some consolation in the fact that there is time to catch up. Middle-market companies as a whole grade themselves “about a C-plus” in terms of digitization, says NCMM executive director Tom Stewart. “Even the companies that say they are digitizing rapidly give themselves an average GPA of 3.1, a B-minus. Either they’re tough graders, or they realize they have a long way to go.”
The NCMM-Magento study also found that most current digitization spending (44%) is aimed at operations, such as business management, back-office functions, and logistics. Only 19% is allocated for innovation and strategic initiatives — targets that can have the greatest impact on growth.