Artificial intelligence (AI)—including robotics and cognitive computing—has been one of the top discussions on the minds of business leaders, organisations and consumers in the past few months. Mark Zuckerberg once said his personal challenge is to build an assistant powered by AI to help him at home and at work, while Toyota is developing a billion-dollar driver assistance system that integrates AI to improve vehicle safety.

For several decades robots have captured the hearts and imagination of consumers – from Rosie, the Jetsons’ robot maid in the 1960s, to the little BB-8 droid in the recent blockbuster “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  Today the innovations that were once considered science fiction, are truly becoming a reality. One of the most talked about items at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show was Kuri, a 20-inch-tall rolling bot that has more mobility than most robots being showcased this year.

READ: Your next co-worker could be a robot – CNBC Africa 

In the workplace, the opportunities presented by artificial intelligence to augment employee tasks, provide real time feedback and improve the performance of the workforce are limitless and organisations are just beginning to scratch the surface.  Mix that with the rapid rise of Millennials in the workforce, and we are likely to see more openness to new technology, as these digital natives reinforce enthusiasm for the emerging world of AI, with its robots and wearables.

One of the most talked about business challenges is how organisations work with cognitive computing, robots and other AI applications that collect and analyse data, and make informed decisions or recommendations.

Already, cognitive computing is being used today in a variety of industries and functions. For example, the Associated Press is using technology to create earnings reports and box scores for sporting events, and it signed a pact with the NCAA to use intelligent machines to cover college sports beyond big-time football and basketball, including those at the Division II and III levels that traditionally don’t receive coverage.

So, what does this mean for the workforce of the future?


Research from Accenture Strategy found mixed feelings among management when it comes to artificial intelligence on the job.  The research, which polled more than 1,700 managers across 14 countries about their attitudes toward and expectations of intelligent machines, found:

  • Some hesitation: Overall, managers are excited at the possibility of AI in the workforce, but there is still a fair amount of uncertainty. The majority of managers believe that intelligent machines will make them more effective and their work more interesting, yet more than one third (35 percent) fear intelligent machines will threaten their jobs.
  • Differences among the ranks: There is more resistance among lower level management in trusting the insights provided from intelligent machines. When asked if they would trust the advice of intelligent machines in making business decisions in the future, only 14 percent of first-line managers and 24 percent of mid-level managers said they strongly agree, compared to 46 percent of executive-level managers.
  • An emerging skills gap: There is a new kind of skills gap developing between “hard” and “interpersonal” skills. While managers recognise the need for digital skills, creative thinking and strategy development, most are overlooking the importance of the interpersonal skills that will set them apart from machines. And overall, more than half (57 percent) of the managers surveyed are uncertain whether they have the skills needed to succeed in their role in the next five years.

How leaders can prepare for robots in the workplace

Employees may be apprehensive about how intelligent machines will change their roles and duties in the next five years, but no one really knows what is to come. Will AI assistants be all the rave in the workplace in five years or using wearables to improve emotional intelligence? One thing is certain, that CEOs and leadership teams need to ensure their managers are prepared to take full advantage of the changes that lie ahead. To help facilitate the shift leaders must:

1.         Sharpen the Human Edge.To achieve the right skill levels and capabilities, leaders will need to rethink their organisations’ talent development and coaching programs, as well as individual performance criteria. Managers need skills that will drive organisational performance and interpersonal skills to build teams, foster innovation and encourage new ways of working.

2.         Rally the Troops.Leaders must present themselves as advocates of change. Managers will be more likely to commit emotionally to the introduction of cognitive computing if they trust the leaders at the helm. Building trust will require clear and honest communications and calls for leaders to involve managers in the change.

3.         Chart a Course of Discovery.CEOs and leadership teams should strive to create a union of managers and machines that does more than just automate tasks or augment managers’ performance. The most successful long-term unions will multiply the value that managers or machines are able to deliver on their own.


4.         Embrace the Unknown.Leaders and their managers must be willing to experiment to identify machine uses that make the most sense for their organisations and their teams. A “fail fast” approach will help them zero in on the higher-value opportunities.

In the next five years, management and machines can unite! There is significant potential for intelligent machines to improve enterprise performance at the management level, but leaders must ensure that their organisations have the capacity to change. Those that get it right will create a culture of experimentation and trust among leaders at all levels, unlocking the full potential of the workforce of the future.