I’m in the middle of a deep dive reviewing current perspectives on automation at work as I begin some new research. My focus is on bottom-up automation rather than management or top-down versions. I propose we all, not just managers, learn to think and act in 4T (expanding on how we see in 3D), clarifying our targets and then adjusting across the available talent, technology, and techniques for reaching those targets.
I’d had the chance to read Reinventing Jobs: A 4-Step Approach for Applying Automation to Work by Ravin Jesuthasan and John Boudreau before it was published and I’m very happy to be reading it again as part of my deep dive. If you’re short on time, take that as a signal of a positive review. If you’d like to see how their book relates to a bottom-up approach, keep reading.
The book is structured around the four steps in the figure below. Regardless of whether you are considering automation from a top-down or bottom-up approach, the authors’ steps are key.
The four steps are both business-minded and technologically open. Return on Improved Performance is a focus on tasks that matter. Highlighting a variety of kinds of automation lets the approach cover work of all types. Jesuthasan and Boudreau also offer a relatively fine-grained checklist to help leaders get started:
Given my personal focus, I see in this checklist examples of Thinking in 4T: Target is top of mind (and top of the list), talent, technology, and technique are woven together both for strength and to avoid roadblocks. If you are considering how to apply automation, or even just improving your current workflow, this is a great guiding structure.
The authors offer a sophisticated approach as you would expect from the Managing Director and Global Practice Leader of Willis Towers Watson (Jesuthasan) and the Research Director for USC’s Center for Effective Organizations and Professor of Management and Organization at Marshall School of Business (Boudreau). Each section of the explanation keeps a clear eye on the complexities of organizations, work, and people. They also are honest about the ripple effects of modern work design:
However, work automation isn’t just about optimizing one job at a time. Groups of jobs are related, so work‐automation requires optimizing the related work tasks across several jobs. In a related group of jobs, each job’s content may be reduced by automation, but the remaining human tasks from several related jobs may be combined into a new, reinvented full‐time job.
In Chapter 7 they bring the focus to my current level of attention: Bottom-up. There they show us how to apply the four steps to our individual work and careers. Sophistication shows here as well: You might start with automating a simple task, but to take full advantage of automation in your work you focus on ROIP (Return on Improved Performance). If all goes well, you gain perspective as well as improved performance and opportunity. In manufacturing this can be a move away from heavy labor and over to managing the automation. Consider this example from the book:
This is more satisfying because I am making the whole system. I only did one part of the process in the old line.” Stéphane Maillard, a 13-year veteran aircraft assembler said the robot has not replaced his job. “It has changed the way of working . . . Before it was very manual. Now it is more about piloting the robot. 100 percent of our operators would never go back.
For knowledge workers, it may be a vast reduction in repetitive tasks like filling in spreadsheets, forms, or creating reports.
These kinds of shifts, where humans do their most valuable work and machines do theirs, is in my view too important to leave only to organizational leaders. I think we all must play our part. As Jesuthasan and Boudreau note, “The new work ecosystem with constantly upgraded and reinvented jobs has the potential to empower workers, create boundless opportunities for careers and learning, and solve thorny issues of skill gaps and regional inequality.” We need to reinvent jobs and Reinventing Jobs: A 4-Step Approach for Applying Automation to Work by Ravin Jesuthasan and John Boudreau is the place to start.