How Robots Will Transform the C-Suite
Senior executives need to lead a workforce that seamlessly blends human talent and automation.
Robots will play a critical role throughout the modern workforce. A recent
of 29 countries estimated that on average, the proportion of
jobs at high risk of automation will be roughly 20 percent by the late
2020s, and 30 percent by the mid-2030s. For employees around the
globe, such shifts could mean preparing to share space with robots as
colleagues or learning new skills as robots take over the most repetitive
or dangerous tasks.
When we talk about robots, we are essentially referring to two kinds:
industrial robots and service robots. Industrial robots
are found in factories
or work environments that use assembly lines or similar approaches to
build products or pick and pack orders at a fulfillment center. Service
robots stand in for humans and are not necessarily machines; in certain
cases, they are applications of artificial intelligence
(AI) or robotic process
automation (RPA). Both varieties will be transformative for many workers,
depending on their industry and role.
The introduction of robots into the workforce will also
reverberate in the C-suite. Not only will top executives
lead the charge for automation in their business
operations, but they must also be prepared for their own
jobs to change. Heading up a hybrid workforce of people
and robots will require a different type of leadership, one that blends
quintessential human skills such as empathy with a tech-savvy and
data-driven mindset. Moreover, new roles may emerge, such as the
chief robotics officer, or leaders in charge of technology ethics.
Given these urgencies, C-suite leaders need to start planning a five- to
10-year road map of their career and organization today. Senior
leaders must objectively assess not only their own strengths, but also
where they have knowledge or experience gaps — areas where they
need to build new skills. A recent PwC study
found, as one might
expect, that those in senior management roles are less likely than,
for example, those in factory or clerical roles to be entirely displaced
by automation. But the nature of leaders’ work will undoubtedly
undergo major shifts. These shifts will open up more time for forward-looking
activities; executives will be helped further here by the
presence of increasingly sophisticated data. Meanwhile, leaders in
customer-facing roles need to figure out how to best serve
customers, taking advantage of automation to provide customized
products and services on demand.
Functional leaders must consider the following matters as they define
their role in the age of robots: What actions will they need to take
now to prepare for the ways that robots will transform their industry
and business? Structurally, what has to change in the organization?
What type of people do they need, how will they work together, and
what will be their roles and responsibilities in this new world? How
will functional leaders manage this hybrid workforce to ensure a
harmonious existence of human and robot workers?
CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICERS
Responsibility for sound management begins at the head of the C-suite.
CEOs will need to provide their company’s vision and
leadership, driving the change and guiding the company through its
digital transformation. CEOs will also need to demonstrate personal
commitment to this effort, holding themselves and others
accountable. And, with respect to robots and related applications of
AI, the chief executive must make sure the board of directors has the
expertise to oversee proper governance and guide decision making.
CEOs will also be involved in helping foster a culture in which humans
and robots coexist with trust, respect, and dignity.
CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICERS
CFOs will have to embrace this change. At the same time, they will
have to keep their eye on whether the investment in automating
finance-related tasks — and tasks in other departments as well — is
paying off. CFOs will oversee compliance activities and take steps
required to build trust with regulators and investors by ensuring that
financial output from automated systems can be explained, and the
risks of automation can be mitigated. CFOs in the robotics age will
need to understand both physical and digital relationships (for
example, a relationship with a third-party vendor that uses robots to
fulfill its service agreements) and put necessary controls in place.
Finance leaders will oversee the transition as robots take on more
and more back-office functions — such as trade settlements and daily
trade reports — freeing people to grapple with high-level analysis
and decision making that add value rather than ticking off to-dos.
CFOs will need to ensure that people are able to build the
automation, interpret results, and maintain control.
CHIEF OPERATING OFFICERS
COOs will play a key role in managing the transformation to a
human–robot hybrid workforce. They must close any gaps in their
knowledge of the technology as they develop a keen sense of how
the changes are impacting the business.
Specifics may differ by industry. In manufacturing, for example,
automation’s primary value comes from creating capacity, lowering
costs, improving safety, and injecting the manufacturing environment
with flexibility and agility. Automation should not be done for its own
sake. COOs should formulate and follow a digital strategy that
incorporates AI or robotics. Investments in automation must have a
clear role in reshaping the manufacturing footprint and streamlining
the supply chain, which may also incorporate technologies such as
and the industrial Internet of Things.
CHIEF HUMAN RESOURCES OFFICERS
CHROs will also see their role greatly affected by robots. Like their C-suite
counterparts, these leaders will need to expand their skills to
succeed. A recent PwC survey of business and HR leaders found that
of HR executives are confident that their departments are
up to speed in advanced technologies, but only a quarter of other
business leaders have similar confidence about their HR departments.
In addition to increasing their technology acumen, HR leaders must
address a number of cultural issues, including how best to manage
robots and train people to do the same. HR leaders also need to
assess their employees' current capabilities, with an eye toward
upskilling and re-skilling. And at the same time, they have to ensure
that future employees are being adequately educated and trained
to enter fields that look different today than they will look in five or
10 years. In other words, leaders need to consider the skills their
people have now, as well as the ones the company will need to
recruit moving forward.
Most important, HR and talent leaders have to embrace the idea that
in the new world of automation, it’s not the jobs they need to protect
as much as it is the people. It will be up to these executives to help
employees understand how they’ll benefit from automation in the
long run, while also developing the leadership capabilities of
managers so they can effectively guide employees through the
changes ahead. Encourage employees to embrace the idea that
automation will help make their jobs more fulfilling — and make those
employees even more valuable to the company.
CHIEF MARKETING OFFICERS
In this environment, marketing will be seen as less of a cost center and
more of a source of revenue. This has critical implications for the CMO,
whose role will become increasingly driven by data analytics.
Customers will expect to have the ability to personalize products and
content, so in sectors such as retail and media, marketing leaders will
work closely with sales to be sure they can deliver on customer
demands. Advanced analytics — performed mostly by robots — will
give executives more time to plan product road maps and set strategy.
CHIEF INFORMATION OFFICERS,
CHIEF TECHNOLOGY OFFICERS,
AND CHIEF DIGITAL OFFICERS
Finally, no discussion of how the rise of robots will impact business
leaders would be complete without addressing technology executives.
CIOs, CTOs, and CDOs may in some companies and industries be
joined by CROs, or chief robotics officers, who will work closely with
finance executives as they navigate a new landscape of risk and
compliance. Tech leaders will have a lot on their plate: cybersecurity,
data management and analytics, and the myriad ways that automation
technologies will impact all parts of the business. They will need to
shift their focus from managing cost to generating revenue. And they
have to collaborate more with tech, robotics, and AI players and
startups in order to enhance infrastructure and upskill IT capabilities.
It’s also possible that we will see convergence of these various tech
leadership roles, with some expanding and some being absorbed
into others, as teams and functions become more deeply integrated. As with all business transformation, companies will not integrate
automation overnight. However, given the pace of adoption, the C-suite
has to adapt as emerging technologies quickly gain prominence
and scale. If you, as a senior leader, want to come out ahead, you
should start discussing these changes with your fellow functional
leaders today to lay the groundwork for your long-term strategy.
As you begin these difficult conversations, don’t lose sight of your
ultimate purpose, and recognize how the decisions you make today
will be perceived tomorrow. It’s all too easy to allow data-driven
thinking to overshadow commitment to purpose, and leaders will
need to be proactive about incorporating both ways of thinking. The
reality is that your workforce will integrate robots soon if it hasn’t
already — and if it hasn’t already, you may be falling behind. Are you
prepared to guide your people through this transformation?
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