You've likely heard the popular trope where humans hand over all of their tedious tasks to machines so the humans can focus on more important things. We are now well into the age of automation, but this vision has not yet come true. For some this means we've delayed our robot overlords from taking control, to others this means that automation isn't realizing the promised return on investment. For me, the answer is much more simple: Humans are important.

In order to unlock the potential of automation and artificial intelligence (AI), we need to put humans at the center and design systems that work with them, not against them or instead of them. In this article, we will discuss three ways to make your business more human-centric in an age where AI is being integrated into every aspect of digital life.

But how do we avoid getting lost in automating everything? Implementing automation systems for customer billing is a different thing than automating customer service calls. While every automation project is unique, they all must start the same: You need to focus on the humans.

What Humans Should Do, What Machines Should Do

Critical to any human-computer interaction or automation is to recognize what humans are great at and what machines are great at. Humans are great at intuition, creativity and connecting with other humans. Machines are great at repetitive tasks, analyzing large data sets and making sense of patterns. A human-centric automation strategy starts by leveraging the strengths of both humans and machines to create a system that is more than the sum of its parts.

Examine the process you are seeking to automate and look for the components where human value is generated. Some of the human values can be hidden in the monotony of application screens and mouse clicks. One example of this was an invoicing process I worked on with a customer. The team member had to click through tons of screens that regularly crashed. When examining the process to prepare for automation, I found that if the person wasn't working so hard to make the application work, they could be focusing on building stronger customer relationships. The relationship work of this process was buried in the countless clicks and system crashes that plagued the team member every day. Freeing the human by automating the system interactions allowed the person to focus on building stronger relationships. This led to faster invoice submissions and processing times that improved cash flow and reduced risk for this company.

Discover the elements of a process where humans will thrive by examining the process. Then empower the humans to amplify that segment of the process to be more human.

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Build Trust With Transparency

Perhaps the long history of failed IT projects has built a level of skepticism in people, but trust is not the default feeling people have about technology in business. Yet with AI, trust is critical to ensure that people know what the system is doing, why it is making the decisions it is making and how to escalate against the machine's decision.

There is a common saying that "Sunshine is the best disinfectant" and it applies to building trust with AI. When you make the decision making of your AI system is transparent, people can understand why it made the decisions it did. They can also see when it isn't working as intended and can take steps to fix it or escalate.

There are many ways to make AI transparent but the most important is to provide visibility into the data that is being used to train the system, how the system makes decisions, and why those decisions were made. This can be done with tools like model cards from Google, which give information about an AI model like who created it, what data was used to train it, and how accurate the model is.

By providing this level of transparency you can begin to build trust with your team about the AI system.

Learning Opportunities

Beyond transparency with how the system works, leadership needs to provide transparency with how AI enables strategic goals. Often automation and AI are perceived with suspicion by the workforce. This is due to the focus on “automation to cut costs” which translates in many people’s minds to "fire employees." As a leader, show how AI enables scale, enables more value-add work. Show how AI — like any technology tool — will help the company and team members. Be open to discussion, actively listen to and address concerns. More on this in the next section.

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AI as Collaborator by Default

"So, what will I do now if this robot is doing my job?" This question inevitably comes up in conversations about automation. The framing of the question betrays a belief that the machine is replacing the human. This isn't an accurate representation of what is happening. The machine is not replacing the human but rather, the human and machine are collaborating to create something better than either could alone.

I've encountered leaders who start with a mindset of cost reduction for a process. They see automation as a savings in the long run — and it can be. The critical component to understand is what you lose with automation, just as you must understand what you gain with automation and what you gain by keeping the work with a human. Automation can work fast, predictably and constantly (depending on the process). Humans can add value and connection with the customer that automation could never provide. The ideal scenario is that automations are handling the work that empowers the human to handle their value-add work.

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Stay Competitive By Staying Human

If you want to stay competitive in the marketplace, it's important your company has a human-centric strategy for automation. After all, humans are what make up the bulk of customers and they'll be impacted by any decision you make about how much or little AI is used within your business. By thinking through how automation can make you more human, you can differentiate your business.

The three ways to be more human in the age of AI are: recognizing what humans should do and what machines should do, building trust with transparency into how your AI system is working and thinking about AI as a collaborator instead of an enemy.

By recognizing the value that humans add to the equation, companies can connect with their customers instead of automating the business away saving cost at the expense of experience.

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