Putting the 'human' back into human capital

Digital is becoming a liberator of human capital. But as it does it demands new leadership qualities from executives

Whichever way the debate plays out over the consequences of robots and artificial intelligence, it is worth remembering that workers look to the future positively. According to Accenture Strategy research almost seven times as many UK employees thought such technologies would have a positive impact on their jobs rather than a negative one. Almost three times as many said digital will improve their job prospects than those who said it will limit them.

A good example of how new technologies are eliminating dull, repetitive, 'dehumanising' tasks and paving the way for more interesting work is the automotive sector.

In one trial a team of staff and robots were able to assemble the frame of a car 10 times faster than a team of three people. The trial focused on what people and robots do best. Simple welds can be carried out by a robot with blistering speed – far faster than anything a human can do. However, this is also a repetitive task for people whose skills could be put to more productive use. Hence complex welds were left to skilled workers who can perform tasks that robots can't.

By no longer being tied to repetitive tasks employees are able to engage in more challenging roles such as troubleshooting, dealing with exceptions, and making sure the production line runs smoothly – ultimately much more rewarding work, which can be tailored to individual strengths.

As collaborative and social tools permeate the entire economy they are also enabling 'ecosystems' to evolve around organisational goals. Different skillsets can be more easily brought together to achieve better solutions and breakthroughs. Indeed, recent research by Accenture Strategy found that 44% of high-growth companies make use of temporary teams, and 86% use employee collaboration to achieve better performance.

However, the implication of a digitally-enabled workforce is that old style management techniques will no longer be very effective. A collaborative culture doesn't work well with silos and hierarchies. Old boundaries between disciplines and departments need to be cleared away so a collaborative approach can grow. Also, building an organisation around 'ecosystems' doesn't function particularly well when there are strict divisions of labour, which stifle autonomy, inspiration, innovation and institutionalise monotony.

Managing a digitally-enabled, collaborative workforce demands looser, more open and fluid structures. Old-style command and control approaches need to evolve into what we call ‘horizontal leadership' – that is, the ability to exercise influence without formal authority. Horizontal leadership encourages collaboration and decentralised decision-making.

In this environment management communicates its priorities, goals and expectations directly to employees. Those people then come together to deliver on those priorities while working with each other and management through collaborative platforms.

These opportunities throw up some paradoxes for business leaders that are hard to reconcile. Horizontal leadership means mastering increasing complexities while guiding teams through far simpler rules. It means not allowing data to force decisions but exercising judgement in the face of an unprecedented volume of workforce data. And it means letting go of tight control in order to allow employees to be more creative.

These attributes of modern leadership and digital technologies are elevating the roles of workers, putting the human back into human capital management.

Payal Vasudeva is managing director of Accenture Strategy UK&I