Trucks at Work

Cognitive computing: What does it mean for trucking?

We’re increasingly being surrounded by self-thinking machines in almost every facet of the business world these days, and that most definitely includes trucking (Autonomous trucks, anyone?)

Yet here’s a question worth asking: How do the humans, and especially the corporate managers in charge of green-lighting the deployment of such machines, feel about this technology? Do they look forward to it with anticipation, trepidation, or a combination of both?

Well, a new Accenture Strategy report – dubbed Managers and machines, unite! – seeks to answer this very question.

Based on a survey of 1,770 managers in 14 countries and 17 business sectors, Accenture found that while the vast majority (84%) of managers believe so-called “intelligent machines” will make them more effective and their work more interesting, more than one-third (35%) fear “cognitive computing” and intelligent machines will threaten their job.

And there’s ample reason for that fear, as the study’s authors believe most managers spend much of their working day on the tasks that intelligent machines will be most suited to perform in the future.

When asked about the tasks they spend the most time on, in their current position, 81% of respondents to Accenture’s poll said planning and coordinating work, followed by solving problems and handling exceptions (65%), monitoring and reporting performance (52%), maintaining routines and standards (51%) and analyzing and sharing information (45%) were the most consuming.

[Let’s return to self-thinking machine Watson for a moment, and see – among other things – how it works and how it wins at Jeopardy.]

As a result, David Smith, senior managing director at Accenture and one of the study’s authors, believes intelligent machines will increasingly free managers from these time-consuming tasks to focus on work that is more uniquely human – activity he calls “judgment work,” such as complex thinking and higher-order reasoning.

“Intelligent machines will not only augment the decision making abilities of managers by providing them with relevant insight and data, but free them to focus on more strategic tasks,” he explained in the study. “The workforce of the future needs to have more intuition, creativity and emotional intelligence. Intelligent machines cannot provide that but do give managers the time to bring these attributes to the fore and allow them to experiment, innovate and capture new growth opportunities.”

OK, so “cognitive computers” aim to ultimately provide more time for humans to perform uniquely “human” tasks. I get that.

Yet many of the managers polled by Accenture don’t see it that way. More than half (57%) are uncertain whether they have the skills to succeed in their role over the next five years and many are concerned about the impact of “intelligent machines” on their jobs.

In fact, managers in electronics and high tech are most concerned that intelligent machines could threaten their positions (50%), Accenture found, followed by 49% of banking managers, 42% in the airline sector and 41% of those in the retail sector.

This “lack of trust” in intelligent systems needs to be addressed, Smith stressed, especially among “first-line” managers; the ones down in the trenches handling day-to-day operations. When asked if they would trust the advice of intelligent systems in making business decisions in the future, only 14% of first-line managers and 24% of mid-level managers said they strongly agree, compared to close to half (46%) of executive-level managers, Accenture’s survey found.

Yet Bob Thomas, managing director of research on leadership and the workforce at Accenture, stressed that managers underestimate the importance of interpersonal skills that set them apart from intelligent machines. When asked which skills they need to be successful in their role in five years, only one in five said social networking (21%), people development (21%) and collaboration skills (20%).

“Managers are not entirely sold on the benefit of intelligent machines and it is up to senior executives to address their concerns,” he explained. “They need to help their managers not just improve their technology skills but develop greater interpersonal skills to lead the workforce of the future.”

Ah, people skills: that does seem to be one area that “cognitive computing” cannot master – for our illogic is our logic, so to speak:

Methinks, however, there won’t be a Captain Kirk available to help trucking navigate its way down the cognitive computing path. But this industry will figure it out. Of that I am sure.

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