Why Digitization Won’t Put Operations Managers Out of Work

What’s happening this week at the intersection of management and technology.

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Tech Savvy

Tech Savvy was a weekly column focused on new developments at the intersection of management and technology. For more weekly roundups for managers, see our Best of This Week series.
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Digitization will make new demands on operations managers: On Oct. 3, ING Group joined a growing number of big European banks when it announced a big investment in digital technology (800 million euros) and a big reduction in force (11% or 5,800 jobs). “Unfortunately digital transformation means less jobs,” CFO Patrick Flynn told Bloomberg Television not very ruefully.

But perhaps not fewer management jobs. “Even as organizations balance lower investment in traditional operations against greater investment in digital, the need for operations management will hardly disappear,” write McKinsey consultants Albert Bollard, Alex Singla, Rohit Sood, and Jasper van Ouwerkerk in a new article in McKinsey Quarterly. “In fact, we believe the need will be more profound than ever.”

In the near term, the challenge will be the ability of companies “to embrace digital innovation and operations-management discipline at the same time.” That, the authors say, will require figuring out how to combine digital and human resources, modify employee roles to showcase and sustain digitization, support customers as they figure out how to work with the organization, and develop leaders and managers with “much stronger day-to-day skills in working with their teams.”

VR products for tactile training: Last week Google announced a long list of consumer products — smart phones, wifi routers, voice-activated speakers, TV streaming devices — including a VR platform and headset. One thing it didn’t announce was the robotic arm that it had developed to experiment with cloud robotics (more in the next item below) because, as Mark Bergen reports in Bloomberg Technology, “it failed Chief Executive Officer Larry Page’s ‘toothbrush test,’ a requirement that the company only ship products used daily by billions of people.”

As frustrating as that might be for the folks in Google’s robotics division, it should come as welcome news to companies, like Dextarobotics, that are developing VR products for the commercial market. Dextarobotics, reports Simon Parkin in MIT Technology Review, makes the Dexmo glove, which lets you handle virtual objects as if they were actually in your hand. “A virtual baseball feels firm in the hand, an egg fragile. Pick up a digital rubber duck while wearing the Dexmo, and it can be squished pleasingly between the fingers,” writes Parkin.

Dexmo, which is still in development, has a variety of applications. CAD design, for instance, and a variety of training situations involving surgery, bomb disposal, and maintenance — anything in which tactile experience is difficult, risky, or expensive to obtain.

Tomorrow’s self-training robotic workforce: With all the hoopla over Google’s new consumer products, the Google Research blog post on cloud robotics didn’t get much attention. Cloud robotics is the ability of robots to instantaneously transmit their experience to other robots over a network, explain Sergey Levine of the Google Brain team, Timothy Lillicrap of DeepMind, and Mrinal Kalakrishnan of X. It’s a critical ability, because we won’t be able to get to scale with robotics if we have to wait for each robot to learn how to perform jobs like flipping burgers or welding car frames on its own. So, naturally, Google is trying to figure out how robots might train each other.

Toward that end, Google’s researchers conducted three experiments that used different approaches to skill learning — “learning motion skills directly from experience, learning internal models of physics, and learning skills with human assistance” — that the robots then shared among themselves. The result: “In all three cases, multiple robots shared their experiences to build a common model of the skill,” report the authors. “The skills learned by the robots are still relatively simple — pushing objects and opening doors — but by learning such skills more quickly and efficiently through collective learning, robots might in the future acquire richer behavioral repertoires that could eventually make it possible for them to assist us in our daily lives.”

Since it will be a while before you can order up a robotic workforce that trains itself, you might use the time to listen to the provocative talk by Sam Harris recently posted on TED.com. The neuroscientist and philosopher makes a bleak but entirely plausible argument that our forays into AI will eventually yield a superintelligence that will destroy us.

“The moment we admit that information processing is the source of intelligence, that some appropriate computational system is what the basis of intelligence is, and we admit that we will improve these systems continuously, and we admit that the horizon of cognition very likely far exceeds what we currently know, then we have to admit that we are in the process of building some sort of god,” Harris concludes. “Now would be a good time to make sure it’s a god we can live with.”

How can we ensure that? Harris doesn’t have a lot to say on the subject — except that we might launch a sort of Manhattan Project (echoing a 2015 suggestion from The Brookings Institute) aimed at understanding how to build a superintelligence in a way that is aligned with human interests. It sounds like a good start. Otherwise, who knows what concessions tomorrow’s robotic workforce will demand at the bargaining table?


Tech Savvy

Tech Savvy was a weekly column focused on new developments at the intersection of management and technology. For more weekly roundups for managers, see our Best of This Week series.
See All Articles in This Series

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Sandeep Raut
good read