I was a bit sceptical when I got invited to a Microsoft Business Transformation event in London this week after I saw that the keynote was being given by aMicrosoft executive with the job title 'Chief Envisioning Officer'. Needless to say I was gearing myself up for half an hour of marketing crap, with Microsoft trying its best to be 'trendy and digital'. However, David Coplin managed to exceed my (rather low) expectations and actually gave a speech (and a follow up interview) that provided some really interesting insights into how enterprises could and should operate in this new digital era.
Apologies David – will in future remember not to judge a book by its cover, or a job title for that matter.
His keynote focused on the idea that 'big-data' as we know it is just a preamble to the really exciting stuff – notably the idea that machine learning will be made so easy that pretty much anyone can go and do it. His concept of machine learning is one whereby we can gain powerful insights from huge swathes of data, by the simple click of a button. For example, he said that Microsoft recently showcased a video call between an English speaking person and a German speaking person, where the 'machine' understand the words and relayed the conversation in the relevant language to the relevant person. Coplin believes that in the years to come we won't need to understand the technical aspects of the data to use it to transform our businesses. He said:
“What's happening as things progress is that we are starting to make these tools much more accessible. Fifteen years ago if you wanted to write a formula in Excel you needed seven manuals, a PHD, four weeks and if you were lucky you might the thing to work. Nowadays you click a button and the thing autocompletes.”
However, don't worry humans, this doesn't mean that we are going to be made irrelevant...
“These tools aren't just for data scientists in white coats and thick glasses anymore, this is about every single member of your organisation having power and access. I don't see this dystopian future where the algorithms take over and all of the white collar workers are redundant because we have the algorithms to do the work and the robots to do the heavy lifting. I see a world a where the humans can stand on the shoulders of the digital giants to achieve more.”
Coplin argues that machines are governed by the frameworks that we give them, given that technologies aren't at the stage where algorithms can programme themselves. For example, IBM's Big Blue may be the best chess player in the world but any human could beat the supercomputer at a game of snap. Also, robots are can't move the pieces or put the chess board together. According to Coplin, we humans will be needed for the foreseeable future. He said:
“These are the limitations we face with technology and that's why humans have a massive role to play in the future of work.”
Organisations need to become living organisms
All sounding pretty promising so far - but Coplin argues that in order for us to become people, and companies, standing on the shoulders of 'digital giants' we need to transform our organisations into living organisms. In fact, he says we should stop thinking of companies in traditional structures completely. We need to adopt a data culture that enables our employees to take advantage of new tools – mobile, cloud, social – and let them be used in ways that we see best. Not just use them within processes that we always have.
“If you want to deliver transformational experiences for your customers, they don't just happen, they don't just come out of thin air. You need transformational employees who are empowered to be transformational. For them to empowered, they need transformational tools e.g. mobile, social. That is the only way to achieve true transformation of the services that you provide your customers.
“We need to stop talking about organisations and organisation structures, and instead we should be setting out to create intelligent organisms. The difference is that an organism can change and evolve, whatever is happening at the time, it can self heal and adapt. You have to let your people free – this is all about all of the incredible talent you have locked up in your employees. Most organisations think of employees locked within domains – e.g. Dave is here to fulfil this job descriptions. An intelligent organism will look beyond this.
“The reason that technology exists is for us to transform and change, but if all we do is use it how we have always used it based on our experiences for the past couple hundred of years we will fail. Rise above that, think about what you can do with the technology to re-imagine and transform what you can do with your customers.”
I found Coplin's keynote very interesting. However, I had some concerns. Concerns that I was able to address with him directly afterwards in an interview. From my perspective, the idea that we will always need humans makes sense. Machines can't do it all – yet. However, I have a fear that all of the basic processes and jobs out there can be carried out by technology and companies being the cost cutters that they typically are will deploy these. This could mean that the human element of a company is at the 'superior layer', where digital tools cover all the basics and people are there for the intelligent insight and strategy. However, does this not then create a 'digital elite'? Society has always been made up of a variety of people with different capabilities and skill sets, can we all really be expect to be a part of this elite?
Coplin didn't seem to think that this is going to be too much of a problem – in the long term. He said:
“Digital elite? It could do, I think that's a danger. And I think in the short term it probably will be the case. In the long term what I am hopeful for is that I think everybody will have that kind of data scientist capability because the algorithms are so accessible. You can click on a button rather than asking someone to analysis it. We still focus a lot on tools when we think about technology, where in reality I think there is a coreset of skills that is consistent throughout this – critical thinking, broad data analysis.
“These are core things that regardless of what happens to the tools, will always be important. Organisations shouldn't be saying 'I don't have to do anything anymore because the algorithms are so powerful', they should be asking 'what can I do on top of that to deliver?'. We are not at the point where algorithms can programme themselves, so until that point we are always going to need humans to sit on top and make sense of the insight the algorithms are providing.”
The other concern I had – actually, maybe not a concern – is: will the big, traditional enterprises that have dominated the market be able to become these living organisms that Coplin talks about? Are they going to be able to transform themselves into agile creatures that adapt and innovate as quickly as an internet born company can? His answer: some will, some won't.
“I see both – but I think the challenge for the big organisations is that you have got to wake up. You have got to see that it is now possible for someone in their garage or their bedroom to spin up a business that could knock you out of business in 12 to 24 months. You should be worried about that. Not in a panicky way, but what are you going to do to make your business more agile? How are you going to keep your organisation relevant to customers in a world where they have so much choice?
“Conversations we have with customers are becoming less about productivity and doing more process. It's more about outcomes. It's about employee well being, it's about giving employees the tools that they want to be able to work in the way that they want to deliver the kind of stuff. Those are the businesses that get it.”