On hollowing out….

Author: Stephen Phillips, Executive Director Morgan Stanley and BIS Editorial Board Member

Please note this post contains the personal views of the author and are not connected with his employer.

Earlier this year Stephen Dale wrote a fascinating article on corporate memory for the May edition: “Are we destined to forget everything we already know”.  As I reflected on his narrative, I felt the need to explore this topic further, as organisations appear to have become “hollowed out” as they focus on cost to deliver short-term efficiency and opportunity.

I also felt the need to re-interpret some of the terminology used to define information, knowledge and memory.  The vocabulary for these concepts has become interchangeable in many organisations as they continue to search for increasingly challenging opportunities to realise further benefits from managing this space.

A quick search on Google (I know!) reveals the first definition of knowledge to be facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject”. Nothing contentious there, but the second definition cites it as “information held on a computer system”. The latter was a new one to me; since when did knowledge become defined as information held on computer systems?

Another interpretation rang more true to me: “awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation”.  To my mind, this speaks to the human nature of knowledge – it is much more than facts and information; it is about awareness, familiarity, experience, consciousness, perception and appreciation.  All nouns that reflect human nature and remain technological aspirations; at least for the time being.

Whilst it is important to recognise and appreciate the capabilities of the latest developments in AI, machine learning and neural processing, it is more important to recognise their limitations and appreciate the benefits associated with tenured people and their accumulated know how in their respective roles.

The most impactful force in the resizing of the business information industry has been the empowerment of “knowledge workers” to do their own information seeking.  However, investment in these workers and their information skills has lagged behind, leaving a workforce that know which buttons to press but who are poorly informed about what underpins the information and technologies they use every day.

Redundancies, outsourcing or offshoring of business information specialists compounds the issues.  New entrants that come into the industry find it difficult to secure positions with their limited experience which is incompatible with the expectation to operate at a level without the benefit of strong foundations of basic, practical information handling experience.

Meanwhile, the “new knowledge workers” increasingly rely on technology not just to bestow them with the facts and information they need but also to skilfully manipulate it into a finished product.

Does it matter?

What happens when the technology fails?  Who has the knowhow or experience to check the product is accurate and is as expected? What happens if it fails the quality check?  Who figures out what went wrong?

Technology is a wonderful thing; I really do love many new technologies.  Organisations are recognising the value of people and particularly those with tenure and the depth of understanding they bring to the business; but we cannot be complacent.  When the technology fails, there is growing dissatisfaction with the lacklustre quality of services; when a problem arises, it requires depth of knowledge and experience to fill the gap.

A number of professional services organisation have begun re-aligning their KM work with Talent Development.  Recognising that knowledge and knowhow are part of the intellectual capital of the organisation.  Acknowledging that experiential learning associated with employment is something to nurture and pass from person to person, not programmed into a machine and regurgitated ad infinitum.  This is especially the case when these standardised routines appear at odds with the need to differentiate an offer by building bespoke solutions to meet specific needs and expectations.

I remain optimistic that our industry will respond and reposition in light of continuing advances.  Unfortunately, this is only one part of the equation.  If we are to thrive, we must continually demonstrate our value to convince our leaders that we have a place in the future of our respective organisations.

2018 Annual Survey – Theme 2

In theme 2 we look at aspects of data and how the information professional can and should create an impact in this area.  I was recently reading on the Information Today blog a piece on how academic librarians in particular can take on the research and management of data.  It is an interesting piece by Andrew Cox and examines the links between data management and skills needed in a professional librarian role today.  He looks at how the importance of big data has grown from being just the level below information on the knowledge pyramid to the top consideration in enabling organisations to operate, grow and compete on the world stage.  He considers how this has come about through the effects of the rise of big data and the concerns it has raised along with the abilities it has given us to gain greater knowledge and understanding of the world around us.  Read the full article here https://www.infotoday.eu/Articles/Editorial/Featured-Articles/Academic-librarianship-as-a-data-profession-125376.aspx

 

Data governance, literacy and quality are all big featured concerns in this year’s survey.  We have seen and discussed the quality of data and information throughout the year with the rise in fake news being published not always deliberately but sometimes with a mis-understanding and mis-use of the underlying data which at the very best has led to a mis-interpretation of the data.   Also, in the news has been the reported detrimental effects of utilising machines for analysis of large data sets without the relevant context for interpretation.  So, whilst it has been feared in some circles that the rise of big data and machine search and analysis would adversely impact on jobs and employment, it turns out that library and information professionals have never been more needed in order to check the analysis and add valuable context to the data to ensure a true interpretation.

 

Understanding data, how to search for it and teaching others how to check the quality of the data they are gathering is now considered a key skill across all sectors.  Managing that data internally, creating appropriate policies to ensure that the data is not kept beyond its life span is equally important particularly with new international policies such as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming into force.  Compliance with data regulations has taken a rise to the forefront as general public in particular have become more and more aware of data, its use and importance.  We have discussed both in the Journal and blog posts on how data has been used and mis-used to manipulate or influence situations including the impact on the American Presidential Campaign.  Information professionals have the specialist knowledge and skills to support organisations in this area ensuring the correct management of internal data, research of external data and interpretation of large data sets.

 

As specialists in this profession library and information professionals are also of great value in ensuring the ethical use of data to gain information and intelligence.  We have all read about the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal, there have also been reports about other big players including YouTube allegedly collecting and improperly using children’s data.  Any news item about the potential mis-use of data can have a lasting detrimental impact on both organisations and individuals involved.  The importance of the ethical use of data is seen in the new framework guidelines on procuring data analytics that the UK Government has produced for civil servants.  The Data Ethics Framework (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/data-ethics-framework/data-ethics-framework#the-data-ethics-workbook) highlights the focus the Government has on ensuring that the data they collect and use is done so appropriately and ethically.  There is an interesting article and commentary on the Governments data plans by Rebecca Hill in The Register here https://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/06/14/data_ethics_centre_framework_government_ai_announcements/

 

Look out for what our research has uncovered specifically on these aspects of data and data management for information departments across industry sectors in September’s Business Information Review.

2018 BIR Annual Survey themes 1 – AI and the Information Professional

In the September issue of Business Information Review (BIR) we will be publishing the 28th Annual Survey of trends in commercial Information and Knowledge Management. The BIR Annual Survey is the longest running continuous survey of the needs and working lives of commercial information and knowledge managers in the World. Since 1990 it has provided an invaluable insight into the changing world of Information and Knowledge Management. Throughout July on this blog we will be giving a taste of some of the trends that have emerged in this year’s survey. These blog posts will not reveal any detail from the survey, but provide an indication of the themes that dominate the commercial information world today. The first of these themes is the growing presence of AI in the workplace.

Over the past year Artificial Intelligence (AI) has moved from science fiction and Hollywood cinema into the business mainstream. Business Information Review has tracked this trend, exploring the emergence of AI in the workplace in an Out-of-the-Box special and editorial in December.

AI describes a cluster of technologies: machine learning; natural language processing; decision making and reasoning; automation of business processes, and so on. The ways in which AI is impacting on the commercial world is therefore quite varied. Nevertheless the impact is tangible; PwC report Sizing the Prize predicts a $16 trillion contribution to the global economy by 2030. AI in the workplace is still in its infancy and while in the future it is likely to impinge on professional roles and functions, at the moment that impact is limited to defined tasks and functions, such as for example the growing use of IBM’s Watson in legal and health research. Yet the embryonic nature of AI technologies today should not blind us to the disruptive potential of the technology over the next ten years. We are at the beginning of a process that is set to transform business, particularly in those fields that have largely remained immune to automation: the professions, business-to-business services, and elements of creative work.

Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody is ten years old this year. In it Shirky observed the following about the disruptive potential of technology for professional occupations:

Most professions exist because there is a scarce resource that requires ongoing management. […] When a profession has been created as a result of some scarcity, as with librarians or television programmers, the professionals themselves are often the last ones to see it when that scarcity goes away (Shirky, 2008),

While Shirky’s diagnosis of the challenges facing librarianship are overly simplistic, they do help explain some of the changes to the profession over the past ten years, and some of the ways that professional work in general has changed. The web revolution disrupted the scarcity of information – resources that had been locked up in hard-to-access physical media or esoteric information retrieval systems were unleashed. We have seen that the gatekeeper role over collections and resources has tended to decline in the digital age. But as information managers have stepped back from purely managing resources they have found new roles in facilitating access to and use of information, and in applying their professional expertise to align the strategic management of information with organisational aims and objectives. Ownership over resources has declined, but evaluation of information and information resources has become increasingly important.

We are perhaps on the brink of another major technological shift in our relationship to information. If decline in scarcity in the digital age tended to emphasize a set of very human aptitudes to leverage the most value from an increasingly abundant resource, particularly around research, evaluation, re-presentation and strategic information management, then the rise of AI threatens to colonize these remaining roles. In the liminal space of information today the tide of technology is constantly encroaching. The next ten years may see automation of a whole range of business functions that previous depended on human reasoning, decision making and interpersonal skills.

AI cannot, however, function in a vacuum, and just as with previous changes in the structure of information delivery, the technology opens up new possibilities for the information profession. The ways in which AI is beginning to impact on information work is a key theme in this year’s survey, and mark a beginning of a conversation within the profession about the future of information work.

Looking at the primary research process – an interview with Denise Carter researcher and author of the BIR Annual Survey

Below is an interview with Denise Carter reflecting on the primary research process that she goes through to gather the information needed for our annual research report into the information and knowledge sector.
Tell us about the research process you go through, how has it developed and changed from when you first started?

Usually based on the previous year’s discussions and then conversations with different information colleagues and peers during the year I try to pick on a couple of themes that I believe are of current interest to information professionals. In between surveys, over the course of the year, I try to pick up articles and news items that relate to those themes, as well as anything else I see in both general and professional literature. Evernote is my great “friend” here and I upload everything to a “BIR” notebook, so I can go through when I have time to then do my further reading and see what really is useful and what not so much.

That reading gives me the building blocks for the questions I want to ask, particularly of the telephone interviewees but also to include in the e-survey.
The first year I did the survey I followed much more closely the methodology as described by Allan Foster (BIR’s previous long term author, researcher and writer of the BIR annual survey). In the next couple I have moved to having the e-survey because it handles some of the more routine questions that Allan asked everyone at the beginning of the telephone interviews about the general business climate, budgets, team sizes and so on. Widening this out to an e-survey gives the potential to get more feedback from different people and hopefully make those answers a little more statistically significant.
The process now is that I select a very general theme, collect reading on that over the year. Then I will construct the e-survey, repeating some questions (I hope that in a couple of years we can then include some comparative data), and asking some new questions that are relevant to the theme or to any other issues I see on the horizon. This year I also included a couple more open questions which gave some very insightful comment and I will certainly do that again. I try to collate and do a basic write up of the e-survey results before commencing on the primary interviews. That way I can use any feedback gleaned there to inform the questions and discussion.
What challenges have you encountered?

The biggest challenge is definitely finding telephone interviewees. I have a list of people who are regulars who have been very helpful and loyal to the process. Finding new candidates is not easy and every year it seems that some people retire or go to work in a completely different area and are no longer able to take part. Between July and December this year I plan to make a much more directed effort to finding some new interviewees.

Time is always an issue. Working backwards from the submission deadline of mid-June, then ideally the e-survey would go out second half of January and telephone interviews would take place in February, March, April. Having more time to spread them out would be useful. That would give May to get the article written. Normally I try to add the interview notes immediately following the interview that way everything is still fresh in my mind. This year there was an unexpected event and that threw the timings right out, so this year in particular timing was very tight as the interviews got pushed into May/June. Hopefully next year will be more tranquil and I can stick to my plan.

How have you overcome them?

To be brutally honest I haven’t overcome the issues of time and finding interviewees yet. They are challenges that remain for 2019. As mentioned though I hope in the second half of the year to get my network going and reach out to some new potential interviewees. Hopefully I will be able to stick to the timetable next year and break the process down into chunks.

Can you list your top 5 best practice points for others completing a similar research process/methodology?

1. The more background reading and information you can pull together outside of the primary interviews and e-surveys the better.

2. Get a structure together earlier rather than later. That helps you think of the questions you want to ask interviewees and in the e-survey and build a framework for the final article.
3. But don’t be tied into your intial structure, when you start to get information from your interviewees there may well be a different story that is emerging, you need to be flexible.
4. Don’t make references and figures and tables a chore, try to get these done in the correct format as you go along. Leaving them until the end creates a tedious task.
5. Try to have a break of at least a week, if not longer, after completing the article, and then re-read with relatively fresh eyes (I’m hoping 4th time will be a charm on that one!). Athough you always need someone else to do a proof-read, you simply cannot see all your own errors.
Overall doing a large piece of research like this can be daunting, and every year I wonder why I put myself forward, but it has also been very interesting and enlightening to speak to other information professionals and to understand what they do day-to-day. It also forces you to read, and we all know that we often have great intentions but finding the time to read up on a topic is hard, so this gives me a great opportunity and I appreciate that. This year reading about AI has been particularly fascinating, and even though I’ve submitted the article I’m still collecting more information on that topic.

Are we destined to always forget what we already know?

Author – Steve Dale, BIR Editorial Board

I wonder what next in the Windrush saga that has been played out in the media these past few weeks? Have we reached the final page of the last chapter now that Amber Rudd has resigned and the new broom in the form of Sajid Javid takes up the reigns as our next Home Secretary? He clearly sees a need for change, having warned the Home Office to expect an overhaul as he ditches the policy of creating a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants and seeks to break free from Theresa May’s legacy.

But before I lose some readers who may be thinking they’ve stumbled across an editorial in the Guardian, rest assured that I don’t intend to write a political commentary on Windrush. My background is in knowledge and information management, and I think it is worth a closer look at what has played out in the Windrush saga through that particular lense.

The Home Office has long had a reputation as a “political graveyard” for ministers, and though one might argue that Mrs Rudd did not have had full control of her department, there is some evidence of basic failings in the Home Office’s administrative capabilities.

Tony Smith, a former director general of the UK Border Force has been quoted as saying:

”What has gone wrong is that a lot of the corporate memory and experience has been lost with the abolition of the immigration service and the UK Border Agency in the 2000s. Now ten years on there are quite junior caseworkers taking decisions who probably have not got much experience of the broader immigration system. They have little discretion to use their nous and common sense when faced with people without documentation”. [1]

This appears to be borne out by the ‘tick-box culture’ that pervades many government departments, where rules and instructions replace discretion and experience. It’s also a solution to lack of training and inadequate (or non-existent) knowledge transfer procedures, which are particularly important in an aging workforce or where there is a high turnover of staff.  Continuity of knowledge and experience, supported by effective and resilient information management systems are the essential components of maintaining a good corporate memory.

But what do we mean by ‘corporate memory’?

Corporate memory is the ability of an organisation to retain information to improve strategy, decision making, problem solving, operations and design. An organisation with low corporate memory is doomed to repeat the same mistakes and reinvent things repeatedly in a costly loop. The following are the basic components of corporate memory:-

  • The abilities and knowledge of employees. Knowledge that isn’t transferred or retained, such as tacit knowledge and situational knowledge, can be lost when people leave the organisation.
  • Data designed to be consumed by people. For example, a policy document or a training video. It is common for knowledge workers to produce copious amounts of documentation that is archived in a tool such as a knowledge management platform. It is also common for such information to go to waste or for similar documentation efforts to be repeated many times.
  • Information designed to be consumed by machine. Automation and decision support based on databases is a type of corporate memory that survives employee turnover. In some cases, replacing systems and changing processes results in data ‘going dark’.
  • Organisational Culture.The norms, habits and expectations of an organisation. As with the culture of a nation, this is rooted in history and serves as a stabilising force that doesn’t easily change.

It is probable that the Home Office is no worse (or better) than any other government department in maintaining an accurate corporate memory, but the Windrush scandal has briefly shone the spotlight in their direction, exposing some cultural and administrative issues. Readers of this post can no doubt think of many other examples, in government or their own organisations where mistakes have been repeated and lessons have not been learnt. But before we cast the shadow of blame on individual workers, it is worth reflecting on whether the underlying culture and values of the organisation have recognised the importance of corporate memory, and have invested in the policies, procedures and resources that will maintain corporate memory for future generations.

If not, we are indeed destined to forget what we already know!

Footnote

Background to Wind-rush

The arrival records of tens of thousands of Windrush generation immigrants, which dated back to the 1950s and 60s, were destroyed by the Home Office in 2010.  A person’s arrival date is crucial to citizenship application because the 1971 Immigration Act gave people who had already moved to Britain indefinite leave to remain. After the destruction of the archive, when an individual requested confirmation of an arrival date, Home Office staff advised there was no record of it.Immigration lawyers have repeatedly criticised the Home Office’s insistence that it is up to individuals to provide copious evidence proving their right to be in the UK. They have argued that If UK officials had kept a record of everyone granted indefinite leave to remain, the problem would never have arisen.

“Business archives are an essential part of our national story. Used wisely, the corporate memory can inspire, inform and innovate in today’s business.” Natalie Ceeney, ex-Chief Executive, The National Archives.

[1]The Times, Saturday 21stApril 2018.

BIR Annual Survey into the information and knowledge profession now open

The BIR annual survey now in its 28th year, has just opened for this year.  The survey provides a look inside the library, information and knowledge profession, highlighting key trends and changes that have taken place over the last 12 months.

The survey is run by Denise Carter, the Managing Director of DCision Consult, a competitive intelligence & business analytics service provider to the pharmaceutical & bio- technology industries. She has 30 years of experience working in the library and information management sectors.

The e Survey is open now just click this link to contribute and give your opinion https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/BIRsurvey18 The survey is complemented by 30 minute interviews for those who wish to take part further.  These interviews, conducted by Denise are highly confidential in nature.   The resulting report does not identify any one person or company.

The report will be published in September’s Business Information Review.

First issue of 2018 now out online

Our March issue contains a number of papers with the general theme of looking at the effects of technology on information and knowledge management. Hal Kirkwood returns to look at how artificial intelligence (AI) is affecting information professionals and their job roles. Delphine Phillips and Mark West from Integreon look at the future of Business Information Services (BIS) within the financial services sector and the effects of technology and other internal and external environmental factors in that area. We also see a contribution from Gabriela Labres Mallmann, a PhD student at the School of Management, UFRGS, considering the influences of Shadow IT on knowledge sharing. Here is a short overview of each of the papers in this issue.

  • The Current State of Artificial Intelligence and the Information Profession: Or Do Librarian Droids Dream of Electric Books? – Prof Hal P Kirkwood, Purdue University.

Hal begins by observing that while there has been an increasing interest in AI in the last 12 months, there has been 100% increase in the use of the terms AI and librarians. AI as a technology is fast moving from science fiction to reality with the rising popularity of voice-activated tools such as Siri to the developing use of self-driving cars and even a self-operating grocery store! His article, unlike others, is not a review of the good and bad sides of using AI, but about considering how the technology is developed and its psychological impacts. A lot goes into the development of the technology, it is not created as ‘all knowing’. It requires a lot of human interaction and consideration to develop the algorithms, providing ‘good’ and ‘relevant’ information and data to the AI tool in order for it to provide an effective service. It still also requires ‘policing’ to ensure that information it provides is accurate and relevant which still requires human interaction. His article also reviews what is being done around the world to consider the impact of AI and ensuring that it is used for the greater good rather than creating a negative impact on people and society at large.

  • Exploring the Future of Business Information Services in the Financial Sector – Delphine Phillips, Knowledge Solutions Manager, Integreon, and Mark West, Operations Director, Knowledge and BIS, Integreon.

Delphine and Mark have conducted a highly interesting research study on the role of BIS within financial services and its future in light of changing internal and external environmental factors. Their research is gathered from global investment banks and equity houses and considers the role technology is playing in the development of the BIS of the future. They review different operating models, how these are affected by internal and external changes and look at future drivers and future scope developments. They also consider the influence of knowledge management services on BIS, how they link and interact.

  • The Influence of Shadow IT Usage on Knowledge Sharing: An Exploratory Study with IT Users – Gabriela Labres Mallmann, PhD student at the School of Management, UFRGS.

Gabriela presents a new look at knowledge sharing from the point of view of ‘Shadow IT’ (software and hardware not authorized by IT departments) and its effects on knowledge sharing. The research is gathered from a series of interviews with IT users looking at how they share knowledge and information, why they share it in this way and considerations for managing risk for the future.

  • Knowledge Management Process Arrangements and Their Impact on Innovation – Eduardo Kunzel Teixeira and Mirian Oliveira of PUCRS, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, and Carla Maria Marques Curado of ISEG-UL, Lisboa, Portugal.

Moving away from technology and focusing more on process, this paper discusses the impact knowledge management process (KMP) has on facilitating innovation. The authors look at how different processes and different combinations of processes can affect innovation. Their conclusions, overviews in the abstract, provide a good taster of the paper itself –

1) it was identified that in general the companies apply balanced KMP arrangements;

2) that the same innovation results can be achieved using different KMP compositions; and

3) that KMP investments tend to reach a maximum effect, beyond which innovation decelerates.

  • Out of the Box – Virtual Realities in the Business World

Luke Tredinnick reviews the emergence and current uses of virtual reality technology and considers how it can impact our world. Will it become just another passing fad like 3D television or is it set to be one of the next disruptive technologies on the horizon?

  • Perspectives

Martin White returns with a review of the latest papers across Sage which could be of interest to you. Highlighted is a paper on the importance of being allowed to make mistakes in order to develop knowledge and innovate. Martin draws from his own background to illustrate the importance of this in the work environment.

Other subjects covered include the use of language and the ability to analyse and use it to consider cultural fit within an organization; considerations for HR and prepping the workplace as the amount of knowledge-led work increases with the working environment becoming more and more complex; AI and human interaction and the development of shared mental models to facilitate future developments; a discussion on the impact of libraries’ ISO standard; and the importance of user interfaces and display of search results in a meaningful way to improve findability. Luke Tredinnick and Claire Laybats

See more online here http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0266382118762967

 

Latest Business Information Review issue now available

Our latest issue of Business Information Review is now available online and contains the usual mix of academic and professional articles. First is an article by Judi Vernau, founding director of Metataxis Ltd which specialises in building ontologies and taxonomies. Entitled Using ontology to improve access to information: the New Zealand experience, Judi’s paper described the development of an ontology intended to support findability within an enterprise content management system in the New Zealand Department of Conservation.  It explores in detail both the ontology itself, and also the comparative benefits and advantages of this approach.

Next is Ali Rezaeian & Rouhollah Bagheri’s paper exploring knowledge networks, a means by which to with which to support knowledge sharing and creation.  Entitled Modelling the Factors Affecting the Implementation of Knowledge Networks, the paper looks at the state of research around knowledge networks, and draws out the success factors in their implementation.  Next is a paper by Antonio Muñoz-Cañavat entitled Competitive Intelligence in Spain: A Study of a Sample of Firms. This paper reports on a survey of Spanish firms to explore the ways in which they approach the challenges of competitive intelligence, and reveals the degree to which benchmarking and SWOT analysis still factor as significant tools in real world corporate settings.

Our final article this issue comes from Cerys Hearsey as part of the Out-of-the-Box strand of tech-related articles. In her paper Cerys explores the growth of Artificial Intelligence in the workplace. Also in this issue is Martin White’s Perspectives column, which this issues addresses the role of meetings, remote working. information culture and collaborative information seeking.

We hope you enjoy reading this issue which can be found at http://journals.sagepub.com/toc/bira/current

 

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.