Sergio Werner | The Good Reasons to Read “Human + Machine”

Reading notes from “Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI” by Paul R. Daugherty  and‎ H. James Wilson

Here is the one single good reason to read this book: to firmly end with the ghost of a zero-sum game between man and machine. Coming from real cases, the authors believe and demonstrate that humans will what they have doing best since the beginning of times: externalising knowledge to the tools around us and adapting to a new (and adaptive) environment. The book can also be seen as a step further of the work already published by the Accenture collaboration with the World Economic Forum.

There are caveats of course. The book adresses the topic in a qualitative way, listing concrete existing and potential man-machine collaboration modes. Naturally there is no quantitative view on what will be adressed by humans and what will adressed through automation. And to counter a bit the very optimistic view of the book (which I share), the relentless logic of capitalism is to extract productivity through technologic leaps, so the underlying long-term trend is that automation will increase.

The value of the book lies on two big points: first, a framework to understand the collaboration between man and machine; second, a taxonomy of use cases in different industries. There is also a leadership framework (MELDS) which I read as a re-statement of the contemporary Innovation Management best practices. Let’s go a bit more in detail.

1. The Missing Middle

What the authors call the “Missing Middle” is the gradual transition that is constructed between a fully automated scope of activities (the RPA, Robotic Process Automation or “Machine-only”) and the fully human realm (the “Human-only”). My big takeaway from the book is this framework that provides a way to explain and, to a certain extent, design future processes, or as the authors convincingly put, the web of flexible activities that will be available to achieve a result.

It is certain that the knowledgeable follower of the AI and automation evolution will be already aware of many of these Hybrid Activities. Algorithm explainability is a key compliance and ethics concern nowadays, the whole topic of embodiment leads to discussions on transhumanism. What is neat in the book is the modeling and the additional layer of depth that come from examples.

On top of the framework, the inventory of future skills point to good hints of skillsets and team constructions that will be needed in the immediate future. The accent put on the Human Ressources and Skills Development aspects is refreshing, if we consider the hype in the industry around a fully automated vision of the future.

2. Use Cases Taxonomy

Many of the use cases described are also available to the knowledgeable reader. What makes the first chapters of the book valuable is what I call their taxonomy. Not only they are organised by industry, which translates the subjacent specialisation of the technology, but within each industry they are also organised in a crescendo, going from what I would call more direct examples (of RPA for example) to more subtle ones, that point to the state of possible man-machine collaboration within that industry.

For someone (like me) looking for a roadmap of concrete, down-to-earth use cases, these chapters are worth reading and re-reading.

3. A note on the MELDS Leadership Guide

This being a Business Book for Business Leaders, we would not escape another leadership acronym. Even though all the content makes a lot of sense, they also overlap a lot with the current wisdom on innovation management. All the steps proposed (MELDS stands for Mindset, Experimentation, Leadership, Data and Skills) are very well covered on today’s methodologies (like Design Thinking), practices (Data Analytics) and Innovation Strategy (like the ones proposed in “Lead and Disrupt“).

Referring back to the current thinking on innovation, maybe enhancing it a bit where it needs to accomodate AI, would allow for some continuity between existing trends (the likes of Digital Transformation) and the world that is being built. All in all it is a bit superfluous to the informed reader, uninformed ones will benefit from the explanation, they should just be aware that this is not something that comes on top of all current transformation efforts, but integrates into it.

As a final note, it is a very pleasant and accessible book, certainly one that I will be recommending around me.

Copyright 2018 H. James Wilson | All Rights Reserved.