A scary thought – could a robot do your job?

First published on LinkedIn on Hallowe’en, 2016

Another month over and time to reflect.  I attended two conferences this month.  The first was the Shared Services UK annual conference in Manchester.  I ran a breakfast seminar on behalf of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales on the importance of attending to culture when establishing a shared services function.  Then it was straight off to Gateshead for the SOLACE Summit.  SOLACE is the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, in case you didn’t know.

The audiences and speakers were quite different at each conference: mostly private sector finance and a few HR professionals at the former, mostly Local Government senior managers at the latter.  Despite these differences, the sessions I managed to catch had eerily a similar message: automation is going further than ever before; digital transformation is happening right now; ultimately; should you be afraid … could a robot do your job?

Digital transformation

The Guardian reported this month 47% of jobs in the UK will be lost to automation by 2050 (Oxford University research).  Global consulting giants McKinsey & Co. have evidence that companies who have embraced digitisation across the entire enterprise have higher revenues and share prices some 20% – 30% higher than the ‘digital laggards’.

The MJ (the leading publication dedicated to local government in the UK) has a view too.  They sagely note that digital transformation only makes sense across silos, which means that local authorities can only embrace digital transformation if they first work on a common shared services infrastructure.  It is not lost on me that this sentence neatly brings together the two conferences I attended.  It is interesting to note the absence of local authorities at the Shared Services Conference though!

In a special report on digital transformation published last month, The MJ noted that Artificial Intelligence can help prioritise citizens’ needs and direct them towards appropriate services 24/7.   Thankfully, they also recognised you still need ‘the human touch’ to deliver those services.  Surely this applies to any service that transcends commoditisation, regardless of sector?

That said, you can always do more to standardise, eliminate waste and centralise service provision.  Surely, the next logical step once this has been achieved is to automate it?

Whether it’s automation or digitisation, the need to work across silos is paramount.  This means more collaboration is needed, and better quality collaboration at that.  For me, this points to the need to understand and deliver whole system leadership.

Whole system leadership

Whole system leadership means attending to strategy, operations and relationships and having the leadership skills to balance the needs of each of these organisational elements.  To do this effectively you need to develop a collaborative mindset and skill-set in your leadership team.

On strategy, you might want to take heed of Chris Paton.  He spoke at the UK Shared Services Annual Conference, recommending you deploy strategy as a live framework rather than a five-year document, obsolete from the moment the ink on it has dried.  This requires agility in operations to ensure the strategy remains flexible and responsive.  In operations, you’ll need to use this agility to operate beyond vertical silos, invest in efficient common services and then automate.

On relationships, you must provide staff with a vision of how digital technology can improve their working lives and the quality of the services they provide and then invest in their skills to deliver those services excellently.

But whole system leadership means more than that too.  There is a real risk of becoming too internally focused and too design-led and as such lose sight of your customers’ needs.  So, you must balance the external pull of the market in which you are operating against the internal pull to efficiency.  And you must balance the rational, design-led approach to optimising operations with the developmental, emotional engagement of the people you lead, and serve.  This is where effective organisational diagnosis comes in.

Collaborative partnering

In the spirit of reflecting on the month, and indeed the year to date, I’d like to share some of the work I’ve been doing recently.  I’ve undertaken a lot of work with clients in developing a system-wide view of their organisational effectiveness.   We then create joined-up development plans to deliver organisational readiness for the future, perhaps a future of digital transformation.  And it’s curious that I’ve delivered more facilitated learning in collaborative partnering skills than any other leadership development topics this year.

You can’t replace customer service with machines, but you need to be ready to work with the machines, collaboratively partner across organisational boundaries and lead the whole system.


Jeremy J Lewis



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