Automation and AI – What does the future of work look like?

Author: Steve Dale BIR Editorial Board Member

Our news and activity streams are buzzing with articles, blogs, analyst reports and social media hype around the topic of “AI”. It’s a fairly loosely defined topic that covers an enormous spectrum of disciplines, from big data and predictive analytics, to machine learning, natural language processing, automation and robotics. Depending on who you listen to, it’s either the most important technological breakthrough since the invention of electricity, or it heralds the end of civilisation as we know it! Extreme scenarios are most certainly fantasies and should be discounted. The most likely outcome is neither extremely negative nor extremely positive.

What tends to focus our attention are the stories about how AI and “intelligent” machines are replacing roles, jobs, or even professions. What is the real truth behind these stories?

There is no doubt that workplace automation is becoming more widespread, and today’s AI-enabled, information-rich tools are increasingly able to handle jobs that in the past have been exclusively done by people (including tax returns, language translations, accounting, even some types of surgery) – automation is destined to have profound implications for the future world of work.

McKinsey recently reported that 30 percent of activities for 60 percent of occupations are now technically automatable.

Recent advances in robotics, machine learning, and AI are pushing the frontier of what machines are capable of doing in all facets of business and the economy. Physical robots have been around for a long time in manufacturing, but more capable, more flexible, safer, and less expensive robots are now engaging in ever expanding activities and combining mechanization with cognitive and learning capabilities—and improving over time as they are trained by their human co-workers on the shop floor, or increasingly learn by themselves.

Massive amounts of data that can be used to train machine learning models are being generated, for example through daily creation of billions of images, online click streams, voice and video, mobile locations, and sensors embedded in the Internet of Things. The combination of these breakthroughs has led to spectacular demonstrations like DeepMind’s AlphaGo, which defeated a human champion of the complex board game ‘Go’ in March 2016.

New milestones are being achieved in numerous areas, often with performance beyond human capabilities. In 2016, for example, Google’s DeepMind and the University of Oxford applied deep learning to a huge data set of BBC programs to create a lip-reading system that is more accurate than a professional lip-reader.

There are numerous examples of how machine learning is being used to augment human decision making in healthcare, aircraft maintenance, oil and gas operations, recruitment, insurance claims processing and law. There is barely a sector that is not engaged in some way in exploring the use of AI and automation technologies to improve productivity or accuracy.

One of the more practical roles for AI over the past few years has been to automate administrative tasks and decisions. Companies typically have thousands of such tasks and decisions to perform, and it was realized that if they could be expressed in a formal logic, they could be automated. A key feature of this type of automation is machine/deep learning and robotic process automation (RPA) – which, contrary to its name does not involve actual robots; it makes use of workflow and business rules technology to perform digital tasks.  The technology makes it relatively easy to automate structured digital tasks that involve interaction with multiple information systems.

So, what does all of this new technology mean in terms of jobs? Most analysts are agreed that whilst many routine tasks and functions – both physical and cognitive – are being automated, this does not necessarily mean that we are heading for mass unemployment as the machines take over. Perhaps one of the most extensive research programmes into the impact of AI on jobs and skills has been undertaken by Nesta. It has published its findings in the report:  The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030. Well worth a read. The report highlights that:

  • skills that are likely to be in greater demand in the future include interpersonal skills, higher-order cognitive skills, and systems skills.
  • the future workforce will need broad-based knowledge in addition to the more specialised skills that are needed for specific occupations.
  • dialogues that consider automation alone are dangerous and misleading since they rarely take account of globalization, an ageing population and the rise of the green economy.

Perhaps the last word on where AI and automation is having (or will have) the most impact should go to Gil Press at Forbes, who identifies the sectors and functions as follows:

  1. Customer Self-Service: Customer-facing physical solutions such as kiosks, interactive digital signage, and self-checkout. Improved by recent innovations such as better touchscreens, faster processors, improved connectivity and sensors. A prime example is the experimental Amazon Go convenience store.
  1. AI-Assisted Robotic Process Automation: Automating organizational workflows and processes using software bots.
  1. Industrial Robots: Physical robots that execute tasks in manufacturing, agriculture, construction, and similar verticals with heavy, industrial-scale workloads. The Internet of Things, improved software and algorithms, data analytics, and advanced electronics have contributed to a wider array of form factors, ability to perform in semi- and unstructured environments, and the “intelligence” to learn and operate autonomously.
  1. Retail and Warehouse Robots: Physical robots with autonomous movement capabilities used in retailing and/or warehousing. Amazon deploys this technology throughout its warehouses.
  1. Virtual Assistants: Personal digital concierges that know users and their data and are discerning enough to interpret their needs and make decisions on their behalf.
  1. Sensory AI: Improving computers ability to identify, “understand,” and even express human sensory faculties and emotions via image and video analysis, facial recognition, speech analytics, and/or text analytics.

He goes on to say:  “There is no question that we will continue to see in the future the same disruption in the job market that we have witnessed in the last sixty-plus years of computer technology creating and destroying jobs (like other technologies that preceded it). The type of disruption that has created Facebook and Tesla. Facebook had a handful of employees in 2004 and today employs 20,000.  Tesla was founded in 2003 and today has 33,000 employees. Whether AI technologies progress fast or slow and whether AI will continue to excel only at narrow tasks or succeed in performing multi-dimensional activities, entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg and Musk…will seize new business opportunities to both destroy and create jobs. Humans, unlike bots and robots (now and possibly forever), adapt to changing circumstances.”

One thing we can be sure of: the rate of change will continue to accelerate, and if we wish to remain relevant in our chosen professions, we need to identify and refine the skills that can’t easily be automated. Whether that’s a shrinking or expanding environment remains to be seen.

Information Professionals Are Fantastic! – My Key Take Away from the 2017 Business Information Survey

Denise Carter, DCision Consult

I’ve just spent part of my Sunday afternoon sitting in the garden in the sunshine reading a book about conducting systematic reviews, an exercise I did for pleasure and which I enjoyed because a) I joined the dots on a few separate pieces of information I already knew and b) I learnt new things.

After just over thirty years of working in information I’m happy to say to that I still find information as interesting today as I did when I started out, and I still love learning more.  That’s why I find it also such a pleasure to conduct the primary interviews for the Annual Business Information Survey. The overwhelming majority of the interviewees have been working for more than a few years for their organisations, and I am continually struck by their continued enthusiasm both for their current roles but also for the wider knowledge and information disciplines. That is a truism across all the different industries.

I have seen myself when I was an information manager for a pharmaceutical company,  in an industry where staff turnover was particularly high it was certainly true that in our company those working in information roles were all long-serving employees – 15-20 years being a good average. Information was not high on the organisation agenda – when our company was acquired by another the information units were not assigned to any of the acquisition work streams that were deemed critical by the senior management to ensure that the company remain efficient during the acquisition process.  What I saw however was all of us with information roles who already had developed an informal working relationship in our original company, join together and take the initiative to reach out to our counterparts in the new organisation and propose solutions to issues the company had failed to recognise, and also to start to explore the new organisation and understand the new opportunities that may provide us.  I also witnessed people on much higher pay grades than myself and my colleagues halt projects, delay decisions because “no-one had told them what they should do” because their reporting structures were disrupted and they were temporarily without a “boss”.

Conducting the interviews I see very clearly that commitment to the organisation and the strategic objectives of the organisation is common across all information professionals.   They are completely committed to the work they do, convinced of it’s value and full of creative ideas of what else they could add or do.

One of the interviewees in this year’s survey spoke of the particular challenge of a corporate merger and the company splitting into three business strands, and the potential concern that their team may get assigned to one strand only rather than providing a service to the whole organisation.   They wanted to make sure they remained central to the activities and but knew they wouldn’t get any more resources but their answer was simply to “get on with it and do it”.

The 2017 Business Information Survey contains many such examples of the dedication and professionalism of the information professional.  We as a profession need to get better at letting people know how great we are. I’m hoping this year’s survey is a contribution to that effort.

BIR Annual Survey 2017 now available

We’re very pleased to announce that the BIR Annual Survey is now available on the journal website. The BIR annual survey is the longest running survey into information management and knowledge management in the commercial sector in the world. This year there has been a significant change to the scope and methodology of the survey, making it more comprehensive than ever.  We’re very grateful to Denise Carter of DCision Consult Sàrl for undertaking the research.

Over recent months we have been flagging-up some of the findings of this year’s survey in our posts on this blog. Those issues that have come to the fore in this years research include:

  • What value looks like to different organisations/senior managers
  • Successful strategies employed for measuring and communicating value (up, down and across organisations)
  • Communication methods to reach the right / different audiences in organisations
  • Having the right skill set, what that is, how it is deployed
  • Keeping up to date with professional trends (info and business)
  • What’s on the horizon – info trends, business trends

The full survey results published in the September issue of Business Information Review develop these themes in detail, and are essential reading for everyone in the sector. This year for the first time all CILIP members have access to the survey from the member’s area of the CILIP website; just log-in at the link below:

https://www.cilip.org.uk/membership/benefits/monthly-magazine-journals-ebulletins/online-journals/sage-journals

The September issue of BIR also contains are usual range of articles and columns. Technology unsurprisingly perhaps also features as important in this year survey . This theme is continued through our next article by Virginia Henry entitled People and Tools: Encouraging Rewarding Interaction in the Workplace. Virginia has worked in knowledge, change and learning management for over 14 years. She passes on her insight and expertise in this article that she has developed in getting people to work with technology more effectively. She considers what she has called the ‘humane factor’ and how to incorporate that into successful deployments of technology.

Our third article comes to us from the US. Hal Kirkwood is an associate professor of library science and business information specialist in the Roland G. Parrish Library of Management & Economics at Purdue University, in Indiana, USA. His article, Towards a Unified Theory of Business Information, looks at the importance of business information literacy and its impact on developing key competitive intelligence information to aid critical decision making. He attempts to bring all the different aspects of business information together in one framework to aid effective decision-making through providing an accurate context on which to base those decisions on.

Next, we take a look at the impact of ‘Fake news’, how and why it is generated in an article by Dominic Spohr, Media and Communications student at London Metropolitan University, entitled Fake News and Ideological Polarization. This is an interesting article which offers and exploratory look at the effect technology has had on our intake of news and current affairs, how filtering and personalization of news services has created filter bubbles which ensure that only views we agree with, or are from similar perspectives to ours are fed back to us. The implications of these developments are huge and something definitely worth considering the next time we view news sites.

Martin White’s column on Perspectives this time carries on our communication theme from the survey looking particularly at the use of corporate language and the effects specifically of international local languages. As usual Martin’s column is an excellent overview of the subject and quotes from some interesting research papers on the subject.

You can find September’s issues here.

 

Horizon scanning – the sixth theme from this year’s annual survey

What’s coming over the horizon for the information and knowledge management profession? Our final look at themes emerging in this year’s Business Information Review Annual Survey focusses on horizon scanning.

The BIR annual survey is the world’s longest running survey into business information management. For over twenty-five years the survey has tracked changes to the profession including the growth of online, the rise of the web and the emergence of knowledge management. This year the survey is bigger and more comprehensive than ever, combining in-depth interviews with a wider survey.  Due for publication in September 2017 issue of Business Information Review, the survey has become an invaluable guide to sector trends and developments.

As well as keeping you up-to-date with emerging trends in the sector, at Business Information Review we aim to look ahead at what is around the next corner. Over the last couple of years we have covered issues as diverse a Brexit, information security, artificial intelligence, and the general data protection regulations, all of which threaten significant change in the sector over the next decade.

These are some of the topics that we think are on the horizon, but what kinds of issues emerged in the BIR survey? As a part of the survey we asked about the issues that are on the horizon of the information profession. A range of issues feature in the responses across the sector, some of which were familiar, and some of which were surprising. Find out more in September’s Business Information Review.

Keeping up-to-date with professional trends

The BIR annual survey is the world’s longest running survey into business information management. For over twenty-five years the survey has tracked changes to the profession including the growth of online, the rise of the web and the emergence of knowledge management. This year the survey is bigger and more comprehensive than ever. Due for publication in September 2017 issue of Business Information Review, the survey has become an invaluable guide to sector trends and developments. It is ironic then that the fifth theme that emerges from this year’s BIR Annual Survey is the challenge of keeping up-to-date with changing professional trends and developments.

The aim of Business Information Review as a professional and academic journal is of course to help information and knowledge management professionals in the commercial sector to stay up-to-date with emerging trends in both professional practice and the wider business and information environments, and to encourage the pursuit of evidence-based practice in the business information sector. The very existence of this journal might be thought of as an attempt to address the longstanding challenge of staying up-to-date and relevant in the face of rapidly changing contexts in the information world. Business Information Review is not the only publication that has this aim; a whole body of professional and academic literature exists that contribute to contemporary professional practice. And this is the tip of a very large iceberg. An industry of professional information events including conferences, training, and networking events, and wider business and corporate publications and events all aim to help us stay ahead of the game.

But whatever the good intentions of everyone involved in these activities, how helpful are they? What kinds of ways do information professionals stay-up-to-date in their professional practice? What do they find most useful? More importantly, how should you be doing it? These questions emerge as a strong theme in this year’s survey, and the answers to them will be published in September’s issue of Business Information Review.

Emerging skills sets – the fourth theme from our survey this year

Our fourth theme from this year’s Annual Survey is a perennial issue for the information and knowledge management industry: how do you ensure you have the right skills sets, and how do you ensure that the right skills sets are deployed. Over the past thirty years, as digital technology has come to dominate information work in a range of different sectors, the kinds of skills that contribute to professional competency has invariably migrated. At the same time, a large part of what was once considered core professional knowledge has declined in importance, or mutated into different forms. Bibliography, classification and indexing for example may have found new leases of life in resource description and information architecture; nevertheless the changing contexts of some of these newly repurposed professional skills sets require different ways of thinking about the task at hand, its purpose, and how it fits with the wider organisational context.

Information work in the commercial sector is rarely just about core professional knowledge and core professional skills; in the commercial sector information and knowledge professionals are  embedded within other professional contexts that makes professional identity more of a hybrid affair – accounting; finance; banking; pharmaceuticals; law and so on. As we have seen in previous years, of value are often not information skills per se but the ability to integrate those skills within a corporate context by adopting a commercial mind-set and flexible practice. As digital technologies continue to automate key elements of the professions and commerce, employees gain value in those abilities that they bring which cannot be automated.

This year’s survey explores these questions, examining what kinds of skills are emergent in the sector, and how those skills are deployed to add value to information services, and improve organisational effectiveness.

Rich communication, the third theme from our survey this year

Our third theme from this year’s Business Information Review survey of seasoned information and knowledge professionals continues on from the second theme of communicating value.  The third theme is about communication methods to reach the right / different audiences in organisations.  In my last post I touched on the way that it is important to use different communication methods depending on the people involved.  Culture, personalities and past experiences all have an impact on what communication method is going to be effective and successful.

Information and knowledge teams are well aware of the need to meet their customer’s expectations when providing value.  Effective communication in order to understand requirements and set expectations on what an information service can realistically provide is of great importance in ensuring that both full use is made of the service and value is provided. Stakeholder management and in particular stakeholder mapping can really help looking in detail at both those who use the service and those who have an impact on what the service can provide in terms of resources.  Stakeholder mapping will help identify all of those impacting on or using the service no matter how obscure.  Understanding their perspectives, needs and goals can help identify the most effective communication methods to use.  For example communicating with a busy executive that makes key decisions on resource allocation and funding is very different from communicating with team utilizing the service. Demonstrations and presentations may be effective for some end users but not everyone has the same learning style.  Understanding these aspects amongst others in your stakeholder group will help build and deploy an effective communication strategy.

Richness of communication appears as very important in this years survey.  Whilst electronic communications can help reach wider audiences, an ability to use a richer medium can provide a greater impact and an ability to build up more effective relationships.

Discover how face to face communications and relationship building amongst other rich communication methods have helped our survey participants reach the right/different audiences successfully in our survey report published in September’s issue.

 

Business Information Review Survey part 2 – Communicating Value

Successful strategies employed for measuring and communicating value (up, down and across organisations) is the second theme our survey has uncovered this year.  It follows on from the importance of demonstrating value and is a key step in ensuring that value is positively impactful on the organization.  It is well known that in the fight for funding to maintain information surveys and continue knowledge sharing projects the information and  knowledge team must be able to show value to the organization.  In the past this has been a need to provide return on investment proof however, as we have seen from our first theme, providing value is seen as more than just a measurement of value against cost.

When working with organisations I have deployed projects that have gathered case study evidence, provided cost saving services, utlised methods such as the creation and development of expert networks to gather knowledge and expertise quickly for the right project.  Depending on the organization concerned different strategies were more successful than others.  Organisational culture, situation, management teams and past experiences using services from the information and knowledge team by executives and employees all had an impact on what would work well and what wouldn’t.  Getting people’s buy-in to projects top up and bottom down through successful communication of why the project or initiative was important was a very important success factor in ensuring the project or initiative was successful.  Communication tools used included promotional messages around the organization from ‘Q and A’ meetings to posters and email campaigns and demonstrations of value.  Methods used depended on the situation, particular initiative and required impact, how far communication needed to reach to be impactful in the organization etc.

Our survey this year examined a number of different communication methods and how they have been used successfully.  It was clear that there is a place for all communication methods but that depending on the situation, person or group to be communicated to different methods have differing success rates.  There is a clear need for electronic and traditional communication methods especially face to face communication.

Read more on this and discover the detail in the 2017 survey in September’s issue.

Business Information Review Survey 2017 – What value looks like

The annual Business Information Review Survey is due to be released in our September issue. Now in its 27th year, the survey this year widened its perspective in both the geographic location and type of industry respondents came from.  In the coming weeks we will be discussing briefly the six key themes that have come out of the survey this year.

Theme 1 – What value looks like to different organisations/senior managers

Value is perceived differently depending on personal perspective, internal organizational culture and environment and external environmental factors. Context of a particular time period is crucial, what might seem important at a time of prosperity may become completely insignificant in a time of austerity.  In a time of uncertainty as we approach Brexit negotiations with a less than strong government to handle those negotiations and a sliding pound value businesses are striving to remain strong and competitive in a global market.

So how does this affect the information profession?  Information is increasingly seen as important as we have seen from reports and debates on ‘fake news’ and misleading ambiguous information being published.  Reputations and businesses have risen and fallen on such information being released.  Effective management of information affects all areas of the organization whether it is being able to access and make use of key information to improve market competitiveness or keeping safe important personal or company data.  So whilst the information profession in the past has struggled to provide clear hard figures on return on investment, it seems the landscape is changing and that there are other ways to provide demonstrable value.

One clear message coming out of the survey is information professionals are being driven to provide visible impact on the business, moving away from a return on investment to a return on impactfulness.

Read more on this and discover the detail in the 2017 survey in September’s issue.

June Issue of BIR now available online

June’s BIR features a familiarly eclectic mix of papers and topics to mitigate the uncertainty engendered by the political world. The first article is this issue is by Henry Boateng from the University of Technology Sydney in Australia and Abednego Feehi Okoe and Tiniwah Deborah Mensah from the University of Technical Studies Accra in Ghana. Entitled ‘The Relationship Between Human Resource Practices and Knowledge Sharing in Service Firms’, the paper examines the effects of job satisfaction, employee commitment, workplace friendship and team culture on knowledge sharing in the service industries. The study finds that these factors play an important role in the willingness of employees to share their expert knowledge and recommends the importance of workplace teams and team culture in facilitating knowledge management strategies.

Manny Cohen, Chairman of Armadillo Business Information, provides the second of our papers this issue, bringing personal and professional experience to the question of fake news in the commercial information environment. Fake news has begun to dominate the agenda in response to recent political upheavals, such as the US Presidential elections and the Brexit referendum discussed in this editorial. Entitled ‘Fake News and Manipulated Data, Individual Access and the Future of Information’, Manny Cohen explores the relationship between fee and free in the digital economy and the underlying causes of the emergence of fake news and inaccurate information, in a provocative critique of the culture of the information industry.

Our third paper is from Jonathan Engel, Director and Chief Information Architect at InfoArk. Under the title, ‘Improving Retrieval of Structured and Unstructured Information: Practical Steps for Better Classification, Navigation and Search’, the paper discussed how information architecture can improve information management processes and help make information resources easier to search and locate. Providing a practical and useful framework for taxonomy building, the paper also addresses a case study of the development of an extended taxonomy in a global agricultural business, and the improvements in recall, precision and accuracy that resulted.

Keith Dewar’s ‘The Value Exchange: Generating Trust in the Digital World’ is our fourth paper in June’s issue. Keith Dewar is Group Marketing and Product Director of MyLife Digital, a company that provides organizations and individuals with a trusted platform built on security, convenience and control for personal information management. His paper for BIR addresses question of trust in the new digital economy of personal information. Personal information has become a kind of currency of the digital age, exchanged in return for access to products and services and transformed into advertising and other revenues. But personal data have also become highly politicized as a consequence of concerns about privacy, surveillance and corporate and state intrusion. Keith Dewar’s paper explores the GDPR and the ways in which companies can approach rebuilding trust between themselves and individuals in the management of personal data.

Our final paper was written by Mario Oscar Steffen, Mírian Oliveira and Andrea R Balle and addresses questions of knowledge management and knowledge sharing in science parks. Entitled ‘Knowledge Sharing Among Companies in a Science and Technology Park’, the research explores the question of collaboration in Brazil. As the authors note, science parks are designed to facilitate collaboration and encourage concentrations of expertise and therefore should be expected to be sites of knowledge exchange and sharing. They find that much of the collaborative knowledge sharing related to managerial rather than technical knowledge and reflect the desire to refine and improve existing products and services.

Martin White returns with Perspectives to round of June’s issue of BIR. Perspectives takes a broad look at emerging research in the social sciences, in general, that may have escaped the attention of information professionals. This issue he draws on research published in History of the Human Sciences, Journal of Service Research, Information Visualization, Organizational Psychology Review, Journal of Information Science, Communication Research, Organization Studies and Health Informatics Journal. The column touches of issues of information overload, big data, research data management, content management systems, virtual teams and business development. Whatever the uncertainties in the wider world Perspectives remains essential reading for wider professional current awareness.

Luke Tredinnick and Claire Laybats