Understanding and Evolving How You Use Automation in Your Work

Matt Beane, Assistant Professor in the Technology Management Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara,  recently published two important pieces about robotics and work. The first is in one of my field’s top academic journals. The second is an op-ed in Wired.  I’m curious to hear which you clicked on first. (Wired’s Matt Simon has a feature piece about some of Matt Beane’s research in an earlier issue.) All the articles offer insights into what work can devolve to if we aren’t proactive about how we integrate automation and robotics into our work -- in my terminology -- if we don’t learn to Think in 4T.  

Across my studies, the pattern is similar. The robot gets installed, handling a focused set of dirty, dangerous, or boring tasks. Efforts to redesign the work slow to a trickle: once results are the same or slightly better than before the redesign stops there. This means organizations miss innovative work designs and instead settle on ones that make the work worse: less challenging with fewer opportunities to learn and relate to other people in the process.
— Matt Beane

We Can’t Afford to Satisfice When It Comes to the 4th Industrial Revolution

Applications of robotics aren’t the only place where we settle for good enough. Nobel Laureate Herb Simon described this human tendency as “satisficing.” That said, given personal and far-reaching implications for all of us if we do a bad job of applying robotics and other forms of artificial intelligence in our work, we need to be more mindful and proactive than our instincts might direct. (We also need to protect against biased thinking about technology - the focus of a future post.)

My version of what we should be doing is working to Think in 4T. Like the rich perception we get from seeing in 3D - we need to think and act in 4T when it comes to our work and other activities.

Thinking in 4T

  • Target: project and/or task goal
  • Talent: people are the glue holding pieces together
  • Technology: everything from shovels to hard automation and robots to basic bots and machine learning
  • Technique: the processes pulling together the work of the talent and technology

You can’t get much done with any one of these “Ts.” You need to Think in 4T. Some targets will be talent focused; others will draw more on technology or the technique of putting them together. Still others will look like an equal mix. As you plan out your projects with your workforce made up of talent and technology, think hard about the right attributes for your situation and the technique you use to put them together.

Thinking in 4T is a Dynamic Process

Also, keep in mind that we need to evolve our approaches. There are not, and likely never will be, good cookbooks for the application of new technologies in work. Beane notes: “From the front lines, it seems clear that organizations that take robots as an opportunity to learn will come out ahead.” Technology can be a great start to change, but it’s not the end. 

Costs versus Benefits

“Getting these clues [ideas about how to tweak technique for better outcomes] takes careful, boots-on-the-ground attention to the entire work system as it changes. Using them to guide a broader work redesign can cost more than a typical robotic install—and not all roboticization is worth equal attention. But not doing this work guarantees an outcome we can't afford: a future of degrading work.”

As the Talent in This Story, We All Need to Think about Our Targets, Technology, and Technique

We need to be thinking about how targets, our talent, available technologies, and techniques relate to our work. Similar to when you join a new organization you might think about how the power structure will play a role and who you need to get to know, or how to manage the process of being reimbursed for business travel, you need to include your available technology tools and how all these attributes come together. Thinking in 4T helps to ensure that you are covering all your bases.

Beane studied robotic surgery in teaching hospitals. (Robotic surgery offers opportunities for less invasive techniques, smaller incisions, etc.) There were significant differences in the training received around traditional/open surgery versus robotic surgery. Beane notes that “residents [the surgeon-in-training] performed surgical work for essentially the entirety of each open procedure [non-robotic], whereas they had 10 to 20 times less time on surgical task for robotic procedures.” Less time on task means less experienced surgeons. One of the identified issues was that the surgical robots offered the teaching surgeon a magnified view of the procedure -- including magnifying any errors that the resident made.  “...well-intended surgeons relying on a new technology that allowed for increased supervision and control ended up micromanaging apprentices away from legitimate peripheral participation in the work.”

Evaluate and Make Adjustments -- Think in 4T

Beane found that the most successful student-surgeons “...often invested many tens and sometimes over a hundred hours of discretionary time on the [robotic] simulator early in their residencies, and this gave them the basic fluency required to earn console time” during the surgeries.  

These more successful student-surgeons figured out that they had to prepare differently for robotic versus traditional training. I doubt that they started with an explicit 4T assessment -- but what if more of them had? What if they started from the perspective of understanding that their target was time doing surgeries (I’m confident they had that in mind). But what if they also realized, or realized more quickly, that in the robotic setting the technology put their work, their talent, under a literal microscope and so they would have to have a higher standard of practice to be allowed hands-on experience? What if the simulators were placed closer to where the surgeons work and given higher priority by the students and their supervisors (technique)? 

Reading Beane’s work it is clear that the training approach for surgery needs to change - for all our benefit. Thinking in 4T offers a place to start - whether that thinking is done by the student-surgeon, the teaching-surgeon, hospital administration, the technology vendors, or all of us. I look forward to hearing how a similar perspective is either working, or could work, in your organization.  #ThinkingIn4T