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The robots are here - time to hold hands

24th October, 2016

L S Lowry was someone who was fascinated by his surroundings, by machinery and industry and the connections between them and the people who lived and worked there. He would have loved Manchester’s new Media City – temple to today’s economic giant of communication, and the setting for this year's Shared Services Forum’s annual “Future Vision” conference.  The event was held in the place where Media City sprang from – The Lowry Arts Centre – a spiraling splash of colour and steel. All along the banks of the docks, and with a nod to the industry of the past, glistening steel structures have sprung up – home to ITV, The BBC, the Corrie studios and many others. But it did make me wonder what was there before. And what an enormous transformation those living nearby must have witnessed in just a few short years.

lowryAnd change in just a few short years was on Phil Jones MBE mind as he bounced onto the stage opening the conference and announced the birth of his son. Or at least that’s what he felt he should be doing, and yet that same son had just taken him down the pub to buy his first pint on his 18th birthday! That's something that anyone who's had children can recognise, and yet the same contraction of time can happen in our working lives. So Phil stressed that it's hugely important to keep making clear decisions based on a vision of the future landscape. One way of doing this, he pointed out, was that we should always bear in mind the “who’s looking at us?” question. Could there be a disruptor who’s about to challenge what we think we know about our industry? The relationship between industry and technology and our human reaction to it remains the key to understanding the future.


And that’s something that Chris Paton, former Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Marines and strategic adviser to the MOD knows about more than most. These days a consultant for business identifying risk and opportunities, his experiences in the military, particularly in Helmand, Afghanistan have inspired his dramatically named "business war gaming.” War gaming’s a fairly simple idea – but one which many organisations simply fail to do – stress test their growth strategies. The idea is to create a strategy executive team, and consider three specifics - where are the opportunity gaps, where are the capability gaps, and where is there too much capability? It’s important to include all key stakeholders, internal and external, then create two teams and effectively set the teams against the other and see where the weaknesses and strengths of the strategy are. The linchpin for success of war gaming is a strong facilitator, otherwise there’s the danger that it could descend into argument. As Chris says, all actions have reactions – throw a pebble and you’re going to get ripples, but plan and you might get to see what the ripples look like. Then, if a crisis does happen you can roll out a contingency planned in advance.

Being able to anticipate certain behaviours is something which is driving the growth of AI and RPA, especially in shared services. But from the conversations I had at the beginning of the breakout session on the topic, people still don’t know what RPA is, or how it differs from the automation they’re already familiar with. Andrew Burgess, a strategic advisor in RPA and AI,  pointed out that essentially robots are stupid. They’ll only do what you tell them to do, and are fantastic at repetitive rules-based activities, able to shift and divert to cope with demand. But AI is something else entirely – AI has the capacity to learn, to map, predict and asks – what is happening? Why is it happening? With money being thrown into its development and the growth of Google’s DeepMind, a machine that creates its own code, it’s clear that the future is AI.

kanya king and phil jones

What’s not clear is what that future will look like. As Sir John Jones said – “the future is not what it was” And that’s true. We each have a mental model of the world and we act accordingly. But the world is changing forever. And it’s important for growth that we update our mental model and the “we’ve always done it this way” is no longer going to cut it. As leaders, John suggests that we make leadership a habit and become the “public face of optimism”. He went on to say that there's no point answering a Monday morning water cooler question such as "how's it going?" by saying "it's chaos", because chaos will become the company ethos. He stressed that success isn’t about being especially gifted or talented, it’s about hard work and lots of it, having the right attitude, learning from mistakes and failure, and most importantly - not forgetting that small gestures at the right time can make an enormous difference.

And having the right attitude is certainly something which seems to have driven MOBO award founder, kanya King MBE – who says that no, simply means “not now.” Having been told at an early age that she needed to limit her aspirations – the MOBO awards are now the largest urban music event in Europe, soon to celebrate their 21st anniversary. But the industry is no stranger to change, with live streaming, illegal downloading and youtube, it’s had to become more agile to survive.

Always a great event to meet old friends and network, this year’s Future Vision held true to its title and forced those attending to look ahead and ask are we ready to face what's coming – are we and our organisations looking up and out, or distracted by the day to day? There were some big questions during the day too – asking us to think about what it is to be human – how will we interact with the machines of now and the future? But to quote Phil Jones, MBE as he closed the day:

“The opportunity is yours – what are you going to do about it?”